Shortly before announcing her campaign against Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, Harmeet Dhillon, a well-connected conservative attorney, phoned an important ally to solicit his thoughts.
In a brief conversation with Donald Trump – whom she has served as an on-again, off-again legal adviser – Dhillon said she planned to challenge McDaniel and wanted to know what the former president made of the 2022 midterm results. She didn’t ask for Trump’s endorsement, nor did he offer one, according to three people familiar with the previously unreported conversation. But she took the former president’s passivity as a green light to proceed. Within days, she announced her campaign in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, bemoaning the GOP’s recent streak of disappointing election outcomes and the national party’s current leaders.
“I think that we really need to radically reshape our leadership in order to win,” Dhillon said.
In the weeks since, a bitter battle has unfolded between McDaniel, a tough-to-beat incumbent with institutional support, and Dhillon, who is counting on grassroots pressure for change to keep her afloat in what many consider an uphill battle. The tense contest comes as Republicans grapple with considerable questions about the party’s mediocre performance in the midterm elections, a public feud between two high-profile Senate GOP campaign arms over their strategy and spending during the 2022 cycle, chaotic attempts to derail a speakership bid by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and increasing uncertainty surrounding the 2024 presidential primary.
“I didn’t think things could get worse after the [Georgia] runoff, but now we’ve got a bare-knuckle fight for RNC chair and it’s going to leave a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths right as we’re starting another critical cycle,” said one committee member who remains undecided on who to support in the chairmanship contest.
Since Dhillon formally launched her campaign last week, the race has grown increasingly heated.
Republican voters and local officials have bombarded committee members with emails and calls about the party’s next chair, often berating them directly for the GOP’s underwhelming performance in the midterms, according to four committee members who requested anonymity to describe their experience. And an anonymous email account has aggressively attacked Dhillon over the lucrative legal fees she’s collected from both the RNC and Trump’s political action committees, forcing McDaniel to condemn the account in a private note to members – some of whom wondered if she had authorized the emails.
Federal election data shows that Dhillon’s eponymous law firm took in more than $440,000 from two Trump-aligned groups last cycle, though Dhillon has told members she would cut ties with Trump if elected chairwoman in order to comply with the RNC’s commitment to remain neutral in the 2024 presidential primary. During the same period, her law firm received nearly $900,000 from the RNC, federal election data shows.
Dhillon has told members she would cease working for Trump if elected chairwoman, acknowledging that “it would be a conflict of interest” for her to continue on as an attorney for the former president in the midst of a presidential primary in which he is competing.
“My understanding is that she would give him up as a client,” said Roger Villere Jr., a Louisiana committee member who is backing Dhillon and has spoken with her about the party’s spending on consultants and outside counsel, like herself.
Meanwhile, Dhillon has baselessly accused current RNC leaders of unscrupulously “handing out perks” to curry favor with members ahead of the committee’s winter meeting, set to take place in January and where the chair for the next election cycle will be picked.
“They’re offering to pay legal bills they weren’t willing to pay two weeks ago. They’re offering cash transfers to the state. They’re offering contracts. They’re offering cozy committee assignments. I can’t compete with that,” Dhillon told conservative personality Larry O’Connor after she announced her candidacy, declining to provide evidence to substantiate her claims.
Dhillon did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNN.
The accusations have infuriated McDaniel allies, some of whom have complained in member-only email chains that Dhillon is “defam[ing] the character of the RNC members who have chosen not to support her” campaign, according to emails shared with CNN.
“The notion that we have been bought or paid for through state party transfers is an insult to our integrity. We are all independent thinkers, and we know what’s best for our states,” said Jeff Kent, a committee member from Washington.
Kyshia Brassington, a committee member from North Carolina, said that claims of “kickbacks” and “perks” being promised to RNC members had resulted in “phone calls, emails and texts accusing me of benefitting from my support of Chairwoman McDaniel” from GOP constituents in her home state.
“We work hard, and we pay a lot of money to do it. Saying we receive kickbacks is an insult,” Brasington wrote in an email to members last week.
Others said there is some truth to an incumbent advantage. the incumbency providing an advantage. Members who might be weighing leadership changes but whose state parties also received generous funding in the last few cycles may be less inclined to disrupt the status quo, said one person close to McDaniel. Sources familiar with the matter note that 2022 was the first cycle in which the RNC transferred money to every single state and territory party.
“You would be nuts to think in the back of your mind that if you came out swinging against somebody and then came back to them two months later asking for help, that it wouldn’t be in the back of their minds,” said the person close to McDaniel.
“It’s very hard to beat an incumbent RNC chair if that incumbent wants to stay,” said Bill Palatucci, a New Jersey committeeman.
Sources familiar with the matter said 2022 was the first cycle in which the RNC transferred money to every single state and territory party. McDaniel hopes to build on that record ifreelected, these sources said.
Beyond the accusations being leveled by Dhillon and her allies, some members who have not yet made a decision to back McDaniel’s reelection expressed genuine concern about the party’s past practice of covering portions of Trump’s mile-high legal fees after he left office and McDaniel’s general posture toward the former president.
In a December 12 interview with Fox Business, McDaniel notably dodged a question about whether Trump “bears any responsibility for some of the losses in the midterm elections.” The former president issued several primary endorsements during the 2022 cycle, often aggravating party leaders who worried about the caliber of candidates Trump was elevating.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like these parceling out [of responsibility],” McDaniel responded, name-dropping the two Trump-backed Senate hopefuls who succeeded out of the five battleground Senate endorsements he made.
McDaniel also drew internal criticism after Trump hosted White supremacist Nick Fuentes and rapper Kanye “Ye” West, who has made numerous anti-Semitic comments in recent months, at his Mar-a-Lago estate just before Thanksgiving.
“I am flabbergasted at the lack of outrage from Ronna about this. We must, as a party, oppose all racism and prejudice, and condemn those who accept and endorse it, which includes inviting neo-nazi’s [sic] to dinner,” Tennessee committeeman Oscar Brock wrote.
Others have suggested the party needs to overhaul its entire election apparatus if Republicans want to succeed in retaking the Senate and White House two years from now.
Even so, McDaniel appears to be well-positioned to secure another term. A letter of support circulated by her allies contained the signatures of approximately two-thirds of the 168 members who will decide the committee’s chair for the coming 2024 cycle. Among the signatories was Shawn Steel, one of Dhillon’s fellow committee members from California, who “energetically” supports McDaniel and floated a compromise in a private email to members over the weekend – suggesting that Dhillon “serve as RNC gen[eral] counsel, run the budget for the RNC legal team, and serve as a key RNC spokesperson.”
“This plan elevates Harmeet to a major position within the RNC family,” Steel wrote, describing the arrangement as one “that would require magnanimity from all sides.”
Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for McDaniel’s reelection campaign, declined to comment on Steel’s proposal or whether the committee member had run it past McDaniel before presenting the idea to members. In a statement, Vaughn said McDaniel’s decision to seek a fourth term “was member driven.”
“Support for the Chairwoman has only grown since her announcement and she looks forward to speaking with each and every member to discuss how the party can continue building upon our investments and make the necessary improvements to compete and win in 2024,” Vaughn said.
But allies of Dhillon insist the top position remains attainable. They believe McDaniel’s support is soft and that a candidate promising change could pose a real threat when the RNC’s 168 voting members convene for their annual winter meeting next month in Dana Point, California, where the election for chair will be conducted by secret ballot.
Change vs. status quo
Sources close to Dhillon, an India-born immigrant who became active in Republican politics in the 2000s, said she began toying with a bid for RNC chair in the days after the November 8 midterm elections, in which the GOP managed to secure a slimmer-than-expected House majority but lost critical Senate and gubernatorial contests.
It wasn’t until Dhillon’s name appeared in a November 29 Politico story revealing the launch of a new advisory council, which has been tasked with reviewing the party’s performance in 2022 and broader elections strategy, that the California-based attorney decided to enter the race. One person familiar with the matter said Dhillon claimed she had only been told of the council in a cursory conversation with McDaniel before she was identified as a co-chair in the press, and was left feeling as though she was cornered into accepting the gig.
An email McDaniel sent to members on November 17, however, mentioned that Dhillon would co-chair a committee alongside Mississippi RNC committeeman Henry Barbour “to conduct an after action report on 2022 to evaluate successes and areas of improvement,” according to a copy of the email shared with CNN.
Dhillon tapped former Trump fundraiser Caroline Wren to assist her campaign and has spent the past week speaking with members and local and state Republican leaders about the direction of the party, as well as retweeting a spate of unfounded allegations against the RNC from right-wing commentators. In one such post, Townhall columnist Kurt Schlichter claimed to have heard “disturbing things” about McDaniel “handing out cash promises to chairs and convention contracts to secure votes.”
Dhillon appears to have enough support to have her name placed in nomination for chair at the party’s winter confab, a move that requires majority support from committee members in at least three states, according to party rules. In one sign of potential momentum, Palatucci, the New Jersey committee member who has been openly disdainful of Trump, said his desire for change is so strong that he would consider supporting Dhillon, despite her ties to the former president and past efforts to sow doubt about the 2020 election results.
“It could be a Hobson’s choice. I’ll readily admit that, but I come down more on the side of change than status quo if we reach that point,” Palatucci said.
New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, who lost the New York gubernatorial race last month and is another potential challenger that Palatucci had been eyeing, declined to enter the race for chair last week, suggesting in a statement that McDaniel’s reelection is a fait accompli even though “change is desperately needed.”
One person Dhillon doesn’t appear to have in her camp, however, is Trump.
Three people familiar with his thinking said the former president does not plan to intervene in the race, but has privately expressed support for McDaniel, whom he tapped as RNC chair after naming Reince Priebus as his incoming White House chief of staff in 2016.
“He’s for sure with her if she asks,” said a person close to Trump, referring to McDaniel.
Meanwhile, Dhillon allies insist the former president’s lack of an endorsement – a prize he was eager to offer up in numerous midterm primaries – means he is open to new leadership, or won’t be upset if RNC members choose to oust their current chair next month.
One source close to Trump said he has a good relationship with Dhillon, whom he has privately described as the only member of his legal team “who’s won for me.” Trump tapped Dhillon’s law firm to help him respond to a subpoena issued earlier this fall by the House select committee investigating the events surrounding January 6, 2021. She was thus part of Trump’s legal team that sued the committee to avoid him being compelled to turn over documents or appear for testimony.
Still, this person said Trump’s relationship with McDaniel is stronger at the end of the day. Though the chairwoman has made a point of underscoring the RNC’s neutrality in 2024 both before and after Trump announced his candidacy, she still checks in “often” with the former president, according to two people familiar with their relationship.
The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment.