DANA POINT, Calif. - Ronna McDaniel will serve a rare fourth term as chair of the Republican National Committee, emerging victorious in a contentious bid for reelection.
McDaniel on Friday defeated her main challenger, the RNC's California national committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon, by a vote of 111 committee members to 51. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, whose campaign drew little support, received four votes.
The at times fierce, two-month-long race sparked debates about how the RNC has managed its finances and fared in recent elections. It also saw some members - on both sides of the contest - publicly calling into question the character of their colleagues, putting McDaniel and her allies on the defensive and forcing the incumbent chair to assemble an aggressive whip operation to shore up her support.
"We need all of us," McDaniel told committee members after calling Dhillon and Lindell to join her onstage. "We heard you, grassroots. We know. We heard Harmeet; we heard Mike Lindell… [W]ith us united and all of us joining together, the Democrats are going to hear us in 2024."
Speaking to a swarm of reporters after the vote, Dhillon said she is committed to working toward repairing fractures in the party, but that party unity won't come overnight.
"We did not expect this to become a national grassroots movement," she said. "So I'm committed to healing and coming together with folks, but at the end of the day, if our party is perceived as totally out of touch with the grassroots - which I think some may take away from this outcome - we have some work to do."
The committee meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach, a luxury seaside resort, illustrated the tense division within the Republican ranks that continue to exist months after the 2022 elections.
Dhillon, whose firm represents former President Donald Trump, raised her profile over the last year with regular appearances on Fox News' evening programs - garnering support in her bid for chair from a prominent cast of conservative commentators. That list included Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Charlie Kirk, who helped mobilize an army of grassroots activists to call and email RNC committee members, urging them to oppose McDaniel's reelection. But those high-profile figures were not always a value add.
On multiple occasions, on-the-fence members told Dhillon and her allies that they would be open to supporting her if Kirk weren't one of her surrogates, said Oscar Brock, the national committeeman from Tennessee who was part of her team. Dhillon had assured concerned members that Kirk, a firebrand conservative figure, wouldn't be part of RNC staff, should she win. But there was never a conversation among her whip team about asking Kirk to dial down his support.
"There probably should have been," Brock said. "But there wasn't."
In an interview Friday, Kirk called McDaniel's victory "a direct insult to the grassroots people that they send 10 emails a day to, begging for money."
"I think the RNC is going to have a lot of trouble raising small-dollar donations, a lot of trouble rebuilding trust," Kirk said. "Going into 2024, the apparatus that should be a machine and clicking on all cylinders and firing on all cylinders is going to be in a trust deficit."
Kirk wasn't the only Dhillon ally whose aggressive advocacy ended up turning off members of the committee. Caroline Wren, who most recently ran Kari Lake's gubernatorial campaign in Arizona, got into a heated exchange with Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones on Thursday night in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria.
According to three people familiar with the confrontation, Wren, who has been Dhillon's top adviser in her campaign for chair, told Jones: "Everyone knows you're here fucking whipping votes for Ronna." She proceeded to call him a "fucking sell out," adding that, "the grassroots will never support you again."
A person familiar with the conversation said Wren had also approached Jones two other times this week, once while he was speaking with an RNC member, during which she called him "the fucking enemy," and another time as Jones was speaking with Lake, during which she called him a "sellout."
Wren confirmed she was frustrated with Jones because he had previously been a public supporter of Dhillon. But she downplayed the tenor of Thursday night's conversation, saying she did not use profanity and adding that she even laughed at one point. Asked Friday about the encounter, Jones smiled and shrugged, saying "there's not much more to say."
In addition to relying on prominent conservative figures, Dhillon's whip team also held calls once or twice weekly, said Brock. But several committee members in recent days said that calls and emails from Dhillon's team had become too much, eventually solidifying their support for McDaniel.
"I think Harmeet could have taken a different approach and said, 'The RNC, it isn't where we want to be. And here's what it will be like when I become chair,' without, you know, calling into question the motives of all the people that are a part of the organization," said Paul Dame, the Vermont Republican Party chair who joined the committee in fall 2021. After remaining undecided for much of the chair race, Dame put his support behind McDaniel this week.
Dhillon drew a last-minute nod of support from Ron DeSantis on Thursday, though it's unclear whether it swayed any votes. The Florida governor's decision to weigh in on the race stood in contrast to Trump.
Despite choosing McDaniel as his RNC chair after his 2016 victory, the former president publicly stayed out of this year's contest, though Dhillon said he sent her a text message through one of his advisers on Wednesday. In the text, Trump joked about disliking one of her endorsers (she declined to say who). Prior to that message, Dhillon hadn't spoken with the former president since shortly after she announced her chair bid. She said that when she told Trump she was running, he remarked that McDaniel had also announced a campaign.
"He said, 'OK, well, that'll be interesting,'" Dhillon recalled. "'Good luck.'"
Despite calling for wholesale reforms to the party moving forward, Dhillon declined on Friday to answer whether she supports Republicans moving on from Trump in 2024, saying it was inappropriate for an RNC committee member to influence voters in the primary process.
While Trump stayed mum, his top aides were privately supporting McDaniel's reelection bid - though advisers Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles disputed the notion that they were whipping votes for her while meeting with members at the Waldorf Astoria in recent days.
Ultimately, McDaniel's team, with the help of allies, convinced members that a fourth term was earned even after the lackluster midterms. It left Dhillon's supporters exasperated.
"Ya got me," said Bill Palatucci, the national committee member from New Jersey, about why his colleagues on the committee overwhelmingly backed McDaniel, despite multiple cycles of GOP disappointments. "That has been my speech to these people on email and via phone calls and meetings here. We just had this terrible midterm cycle, and you guys don't want to make a change? For whatever reason, they have their heads buried in the sand."
McDaniel's bid for a fourth term was a fight before it officially started.
Former Rep. Lee Zeldin, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in New York whose race drew national attention for being closer than expected, floated his name for RNC chair shortly after the midterms. And Palatucci - upset by what he described as McDaniel's brief "disaster" of a call with RNC members on Nov. 9 - emailed top RNC staff and some members his concerns. In the note, he wrote that McDaniel's remarks "showed incredible unwillingness to face the reality of what happened last evening," adding that he and other members "want a real, honest assessment of what happened."
When she formally announced her bid on Nov. 14, McDaniel held a lengthy call with members - taking questions and making her case for why she should continue in the role. McDaniel had previously told members in 2021 she would not seek another term after her third.
By the end of the week, McDaniel had assembled a list of more than 100 members publicly supporting her. Just after Thanksgiving, she announced she was launching a "Republican Party Advisory Council" to "review" the party's electoral performance in 2022.
Last week, McDaniel sent members a document she called her "Vision for Unity," which included plans to improve Republicans' "legal ballot collecting" efforts, find new tactics for small-dollar fundraising that has suffered in recent years, and boosting the youth vote. In the document, first reported by POLITICO, McDaniel made an appeal to members who were inclined to support Dhillon, saying she would work with Dhillon and Lindell over the next two years in an effort to unite all corners of the GOP.
"I look forward to uniting once again as a Party and working together, alongside Harmeet and Mike, to heal as a Party and elect Republicans," McDaniel wrote.
Rachael Bade contributed to this report.