DANA POINT, Calif. - The Republican Party is readying to release its review of why key candidates underwhelmed in last fall's midterm elections by early spring.
But while Republican National Committee members agree on the need to wrap up the inquiry before the presidential primary moves full-steam ahead, there remains disagreement over a key part of the review - a focus on "candidate quality," which is seen as a euphemism for former President Donald Trump's failed endorsements in key swing state races.
The split played out during the panel's meeting at this week's RNC gathering, with Arizona committee member Tyler Bowyer arguing to Mississippi committee member Henry Barbour behind closed doors that the problem in 2022 was not candidate quality but a lack of resources offered to a series of high-profile nominees who lost last fall. Both men, who are part of the RNC team tasked with reviewing the midterms, confirmed the discussion to NBC News.
"We had a little bit of a debate between me and Henry Barbour over candidate quality versus candidate support," Bowyer, who is also chief operating officer of Turning Point Action, a conservative group, said. "And I just take the position that we're never going to be able to tell Donald Trump what he has to do. President Trump can support whoever he wants to support.
"It's not our ability to influence that," he continued. "The only thing we can influence are the things that we control. And what we control here at the RNC is money that comes in and money that goes out. And that's the predominant force."
Barbour - whom Ronna McDaniel, the newly re-elected RNC chairwoman, tapped to co-chair the review alongside California committee member Harmeet Dhillon, Kansas committee member Kim Borchers and Delaware GOP Chair Jane Brady - said he and Bowyer "had a discussion along those lines."
Earlier this month, Barbour said in an interview with NBC News that the committee would closely examine what role Trump had played in the party's underwhelming 2022 midterm results as part of its audit, which he said which would also probe myriad other topics, such as turnout and ticket-splitting.
"What we intend to do is get into the weeds, to have data to confirm or certainly to give weight to the assessments that we make," he said at the time. "This has got to be a candid effort. We can't gloss over things. Or it's just not worth doing."
Their debate echoes a broader schism in the party over where blame lies for underwhelming results in the midterms in which the underlying fundamentals favored Republicans. In the end, the GOP won few statewide swing-state races and entered 2023 with only a slim House majority.
Many in the party have cited candidate quality as the chief reason for a subpar performance. Others have pointed to the party and outside campaign groups investing comparatively little in frontline candidates like Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano - hardliners who aligned closely with Trump's false election claims.
Trump himself has placed blame for the party's midterm shortcomings on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnnell, as well as on hardline anti-abortion rights activists who called for no exceptions to new bans following the Supreme Court's overturning Roe v. Wade - a decision made possible by his appointment of three justices to the high court.
Bill Palatucci, an RNC committee member from New Jersey who has been critical of Trump and is taking part in the review, said that while the effort is "a monumental task" that was just getting underway, he didn't believe it was too hard to figure out what happened last fall.
"I hope we don't go so deep that we miss the forest for the trees," he said. "I think it's pretty simple. We had a bunch of terrible candidates. I don't know what more really needs to be said than that."
Palatucci, who backed Dhillon in the chair race, praised Barbour and said the panel had discussed "all aspects" of the past election, including fundraising, candidates, messaging and tactics.
"I said on our conference call with the RNC in November, I'd give Ronna an A for tactics," he said. "Where we have a failing grade on is message and messengers. Donald Trump was a terrible messenger."
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Dhillon said her biggest concern was that the review could take until the summer to be released, adding that such a timeline was "ludicrous given that we have an active primary season coming up.
"And so I urged the committee, 'We've got to do this quickly,'" she said, adding that the timeline had moved up from July to March for a final report. "I don't think there's any shortage of opinions about what went wrong in the 2022 election cycle. And I think I could have done it in two weeks. Frankly, I had a litany of reasons already."
In a text message to NBC News, Barbour said the timeline is still "a work in progress," adding that March was "the fastest likely date, but was not out of question.
"Could slip to April, but we generally agree faster is better," he said. "But gotta be right."
Barbour also co-authored the audit that followed Republican Mitt Romney's presidential defeat in 2012, which was dubbed the "Growth and Opportunity Project." Among other conclusions, it called on Republicans to soften their stance on immigration and adopt a more inclusive posture. The suggestions were largely cast aside during Trump's first bid for the White House.
In her Thursday gaggle, Dhillon said the group was focused on roughly a dozen areas of inquiry with about 50 members taking part in the process.
"We're not focusing or excluding any particular thing," she said. "The topics weren't dictated to us."
She dismissed concerns over whether the panel would brush aside any role Trump might have played in midterm shortcomings.
"I don't think that's a legitimate concern," she said. "Henry Barbour is one of the co-chairs. He's not a notorious Trump partisan. And so I do think that we will have a pretty objective report. … When people say candidate quality, some perceive that as a code word for Trump endorsement. So people are saying that."
But as for her own opinion, Dhillon, who lost to McDaniel in the chair contest on Friday, said chalking up the midterm losses to Trump was too "simplistic." But she said there was a role for the RNC to play in ensuring the party fields good candidates - and appeared to take a dig at Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz, high-profile candidates who faced accusations of carpetbagging. Both received Trump's endorsement and lost, costing Republicans Senate seats in Georgia and Pennsylvania.
"I'm talking about moral and practical leadership and persuasion," she said. "And so that means sometimes going to a person who's famous and rich and saying, 'If you don't live in the state, maybe you shouldn't run for Senate in that state.'"
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com