Trump's push to remake the RNC could get messy

Trump has privately indicated he has a preferred candidate in mind if Ronna McDaniel steps down as chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

Ronna McDaniel speaks at the Republican National Committee winter meeting in Dana Point, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2023.Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images file

As Donald Trump works on locking up the Republican presidential nomination, he’s setting his sights on remaking the Republican National Committee in his own image. But it’s a task that is likely to come with some political peril, and it may not happen without a fight. 

Trump has said in recent days that he’s looking for change at the RNC, which could mean Ronna McDaniel’s stepping aside as chairwoman. The Trump campaign has openly signaled that if she does, its preferred pick for a successor is North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley, a veteran operative with deep ties to the party’s establishment who is currently the RNC’s general counsel.

It’s those establishment ties that could prove to be a complicating factor. 

Whatley’s supporters describe him as a “workhorse” who is the perfect fit to take over the national party. He has significant experience within the RNC, and he helped rebuild his own embattled state party after he took over from a chairman facing a bribery scandal. Whatley also supported Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud — which has helped endear him to the former president.

But he is also very much seen as part of a party establishment that some conservatives would like to tear down. That is highlighted most notably by the fact that he offered a voice of support to McDaniel during her contested re-election bid last year. Speaking with NBC News in December 2022, Whatley said his decision to back her “was not a close call,” because she was responsive to the needs of RNC members and his own state party.

“Every single time I called her, the answer was yes,” he said. “I’m not surprised that folks coalesced behind her or around her as quickly as they did.”

Though Trump hand-picked McDaniel to lead the party in 2016, after four terms she has become a political bogeyman to a vocal group of conservatives who blame her for three consecutive election cycles that have been rough for Republicans.

Scrutiny of McDaniel’s leadership at the RNC increased among party activists after the 2022 midterms, focused on her handling of party finances and grassroots efforts. The party’s latest disclosure with the Federal Election Commission showed it was facing a cash crunch, with less than half as much money in the bank as the Democratic National Committee reported at the end of 2023. 

Calls for change at the RNC ramped up again ahead of the party’s winter meetings in Las Vegas last week. Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist and co-founder of the right-wing group Turning Point USA, who led the charge to oust McDaniel last year, held a nearby conference dubbed the “Restoring National Confidence” summit — a clear shot at the party. A Turning Point spokesperson declined to comment on what the group thinks of the potential for Whatley to be the next RNC chair.

“Anyone associated with Ronna will be impossible to sell to the grassroots,” said former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, an influential voice among anti-establishment conservatives. “The RNC needs a purge — now, so it can be rebuilt to help President Trump.”

Michael Whatley at a campaign event for Donald Trump in Indianola, Iowa, on Jan. 14. Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

That’s the political needle Trump needs to thread: If McDaniel resigns, the next chair has to be able to both raise enough money to win elections and be palatable to the anti-establishment MAGA base.

“I really think they have it all wrong,” Ed Broyhill, a North Carolina GOP donor who was Trump’s 2020 finance chairman in the state, said of that group of detractors. 

“He [Whatley] has no philosophical or political conflicts with those folks,” Broyhill said. “They are on the same page there. He was the sort of gentleman who saw a weakness in the national agenda, and that’s why he ran for co-chair. He does not want to tear the house down. He wants to go inside and help make changes.”

Broyhill was referring to Whatley’s 2023 failed bid for RNC co-chair against South Carolina GOP Chair Drew McKissick, who NBC News reported Wednesday night is also running for chair if McDaniel steps down. Whatley lost that race even though he had Trump’s endorsement.

Former Florida Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters, a longtime Trump supporter whose bid to become an RNC committeeman Trump has endorsed, was also mentioned by The Miami Herald on Thursday as a potential replacement.

Trump has not publicly chimed in on his preferred pick, but a senior Trump adviser told NBC News that he likes Whatley as a potential chair. A Republican member of Congress who spoke with Trump also said Trump indicated he would like Whatley to succeed McDaniel.

Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign adviser, posted a Fox News article Wednesday with a headline that quoted sources saying Trump “recommends” Whatley to replace McDaniel.

Steve Scheffler, an RNC committeeman from Iowa, said: “I will support whoever President Trump desires to be the next RNC chair. Having said that, Whatley is a very talented political operative who would be an excellent choice if that is who Trump wants.”

Trump’s campaign declined to comment for this article, and Whatley and McKissick did not reply to requests for comment.

Not only has McKissick already beaten Whatley in a head-to-head leadership contest; he maintains a block of support within the RNC and with others in the party who said they would back him if McDaniel resigns.

If McDaniel resigns, “he certainly wants to be the next chair,” McKissick ally Robin Armstrong, an RNC committeeman from Texas, told NBC News on Wednesday night. “He is the chair of the South Carolina party. He’s currently the co-chair [of the RNC]. I think it’d naturally be the next thing for him to step up as chair of the RNC.”

Oscar Brock, an RNC committeeman from Tennessee, said McKissick is the better choice.

“Michael would not be my first choice,” Brock said. “I would imagine that he’d be Ronna’s pick. … I simply think Drew McKissick is more charismatic and is well-liked by the members.”  

Alex Stroman, a former South Carolina GOP executive director, said that McKissick has gotten Trump’s endorsement in the past and that as co-chair he has a valuable commodity in RNC circles: seniority.

“The 168 members of the RNC place a lot of value in not only elevating those who build winning state parties, but those who spend time building relationships with the committee — Drew McKissick has done both,” he said.

But highlighting the tension points that may emerge in a competitive race, Broyhill, the North Carolina GOP donor, said few have more experience rebuilding political parties than Whatley. He took over as North Carolina chairman in 2019 as his predecessor, former Rep. Robin Hayes, was facing allegations he bribed state insurance officials. Hayes eventually pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI; Trump pardoned him in 2021. 

“Within four years, we became the dominant force in the General Assembly, had veto-proof majorities and got the majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Broyhill said of Whatley’s quickly rebuilding the North Carolina GOP. “For each of those activities, he had a fundraising entity for those specific efforts. He’s organized and can raise money.”

North Carolina GOP operative Michael DeSantis said, “He’s a workhorse.” He said Whatley, a longtime GOP activist who got his start working for arch-conservative Jesse Helms, would show up at “every single event” in the state over the years while still working a day job in Washington, D.C.

DeSantis said Whatley is known in the state as someone who can navigate grassroots priorities while still speaking to the party establishment.

“I think that’s why Trump likes him,” he said. “Because Trump’s kind of like that, where his message goes to the base and he can talk to the donors, as well.”

Art Pope, a longtime conservative North Carolina donor, also said he has seen Whatley implement an election security plan, which has become a focus for Trump after he made the unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

“Michael made it a priority to have attorneys on call or present in every county board of elections,” Pope said, adding, “He emphasized a good presence to handle any legal challenges, any motion to keep polls open if there were any questions about a precinct being closed and not accessible.”

There is, however, another layer of complication preventing a potential smooth transition of power at the RNC: McDaniel herself.

The sharks have been circling ever since Trump signaled last weekend that “changes” would be coming to the national party, but so far McDaniel has said that no decision about her stepping down has been made and that the plan was always for a final decision to be made after the Feb. 24 South Carolina primary.

“I am still hard at work as RNC Chairwoman and building a machine that will elect Republicans up and down the ballot in November,” she wrote in an email to members Wednesday afternoon first reported by NBC News. 

Even McDaniel’s strongest allies in the party, though, acknowledge a change seems imminent. 

“You have to blame someone. And it can’t be ‘wrong candidate.’ It can’t be ‘Trump’s influence,’” said an RNC member who supported McDaniel’s re-election. “It is possible no change is made, but the handwriting is on the wall.”

The person, who spoke with McDaniel after she met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida this week, said she and Trump do remain on good terms.

“Ronna and Trump are friends and have worked together for a long time, so this is actually a low-drama situation, especially if Whatley gets the nod,” the person said. “He is widely respected. He’s an institutional guy and also a longtime part of the Trump team.”

There are some Trump supporters who think that even if McDaniel could survive in some capacity, she would have to deal with another layer of Trump-appointed leadership, most likely led by Chris LaCivita, a top Trump adviser. Under that scenario, LaCivita would hold much of the official power over national party operations.

Bill Palatucci, an RNC committeeman from New Jersey, said Whatley “is a great guy,” but he said the more important factor for how the RNC is led depends on what staff the Trump campaign sends over to the committee.

“It’s routine for the presumptive nominee to take control of the committee, and so no one will have issue with turning over the operational control to the campaign,” said Palatucci, who is often critical of Trump. “Even me.” 

No matter the outcome, if a leadership vacuum emerges at the top of the party, Whatley is Trump’s clear choice, Trump’s advisers and supporters have not so quietly, even if not yet publicly, signaled.

“The best-case scenario is that Michael Whatley is able to clear the field and there is no race,” said a source familiar with the process. “It’s a coronation.”