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GOP infighting unlikely to subside even after RNC chair battle is done

“After this is over tomorrow, it’s not over,” said Jonathan Barnett, an RNC committeeman backing Harmeet Dhillon for chair. “It’s going to take some time to do some rebuilding."
Ronna McDaniel, the GOP chairwoman, speaks during the Republican National Committee winter meeting on Feb. 4, 2022, in Salt Lake City.
Ronna McDaniel, the GOP chairwoman, speaks during the RNC winter meeting on Feb. 4, 2022, in Salt Lake City.Rick Bowmer / AP file

DANA POINT, Calif. — The 168 members of the Republican National Committee are set to elect their chair on Friday, after a contentious, monthslong campaign to determine who is best positioned to set the party on a solid course for 2024 after a disappointing showing in the midterm elections.

But members gathered here at the party’s winter meeting say that once all the votes are counted, the tensions are unlikely to quickly subside.

“After this is over tomorrow, it’s not over,” said Jonathan Barnett, an RNC committeeman from Arkansas who is backing challenger Harmeet Dhillon to lead the party. “It’s going to take some time to do some rebuilding, and Harmeet still has a strong voice. All of us who are supporting Harmeet are not going away.”

Heading into the Friday's secret ballot, Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is the favorite to win a fourth term leading the party, putting her on track to be the longest serving GOP chair since the 19th century. Soon after the midterms, she released a letter citing the support of more than 100 members — a show of force that led another potential candidate, then-Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, to opt against running for the chairmanship.

But Dhillon, an RNC committeewoman from California, has seen her candidacy boosted by grassroots activists and conservative influencers who have hammered away at the need for change at the head of the party after three consecutive underwhelming elections for Republicans, particularly in swing districts and states. She has the public backing of roughly 30 RNC members, but Dhillon and her allies insist she has been able to win over a chunk of undecided members while eating into McDaniel’s initial list of supporters — and she received a big boost within the last 24 hours after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis released a video praising her efforts and calling for "change."

McDaniel and Dhillon supporters who spoke with NBC News acknowledged Dhillon is facing tough odds to unseat McDaniel. Those battles, however, have put the party’s divisions at center stage as Republicans try to chart their future with the 2024 presidential primaries set to soon pick up steam.

For nearly two months, RNC members, particularly those backing McDaniel, have been inundated with emails from Dhillon supporters pleading with them to back the insurgent candidacy. Ahead of the first contested leadership vote in more than a decade, tensions here came to a head Thursday during a members-only meeting that went more than an hour over the allotted time.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Dhillon, who has pledged to support the RNC no matter the result of Friday’s vote, described the meeting as a “quite spirited discussion” about the party’s future. 

“I believe in conversation and [a] constructive exchange of competing ideas,” she said. “The fact that we haven’t had that at the Republican National Committee in a leadership election for 12 years [means] we’re having a lot of suppressed conflict here and it’s all erupting to the surface. I’m glad that we had that meeting behind closed doors. It was contentious.”

Dhillon and her supporters, who have accused McDaniel and her team of marginalizing them at the winter gathering, have argued that the RNC needs to be more transparent, particularly on spending and resource allocation. She also wants the party to more aggressively fight Democrats in court and be active in addressing candidates who may harm the party’s chances in winnable races. McDaniel and her backers say the criticisms of her leadership are misguided and point to successful initiatives she’s launched, her fundraising prowess and her working relationships across state parties.

“At the end of the day, Ronna has just done a good job of leading the party,” said Ben Proto, chairman of the Connecticut GOP, noting her fundraising and RNC programs she’s started across the country. 

He added that after the vote Friday, it will “be incumbent upon us to go back to our states and have those conversations with people that ‘Look, this was the outcome, this is where we’re at, you get a choice here, you can either support the party, support our candidates, or walk away.’”

“I can tell you that Democrats are not going to walk away from their party, they are not going to walk away from their candidates because they don’t like the national chairman,” he added. "That’s not going to happen. And if we want to win elections, we need to understand that we’re not going to agree on everything all the time, except that we’re better off when Republicans are in charge.”

Proto said he and others were eager for Friday afternoon so that the party could move past the drama surrounding the chair fight and begin working toward electing Republicans “up and down the ballot over the next couple of years.”

Others echoed his sentiment.

“I don’t like all the drama,” Steve Scheffler, an RNC committeeman from Iowa and president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition who is backing McDaniel, told NBC News, adding he was hopeful the party would come together following the vote. “I think Ronna is still favored, but you know it is a secret ballot. So I wouldn’t be shocked if Harmeet won, but I don’t think it’s likely.”

Dhillon's candidacy was bolstered Thursday by DeSantis, who polls show is a leading alternative to former President Donald Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primary race, after he called for change at the RNC in an interview with the conservative activist Charlie Kirk, lamenting recent disappointments at the ballot box. The comments gave the appearance of the RNC leadership race serving as a proxy battle between DeSantis and Trump, who, though he has not endorsed McDaniel, handpicked her for the job.

Dhillon was quick to tamp down on the governor's remarks, expressing gratitude for the sentiment but being clear that DeSantis was not giving her an official endorsement. 

“It’s gratifying to see leaders in our party listening to the grassroots,” she said. “And I hope the leaders in this party here, the 167 others of this party, also hear what the grassroots are saying and they reflect that as well.”

Members said that while DeSantis held weight with RNC members, his comments are likely to have come too late in the process to swing the vote.

“He’s very well thought of and carries a lot of weight here,” Bill Palatucci, an RNC committeeman from New Jersey who is backing Dhillon, told NBC News. “I just think it comes a little too late to impact the vote much.”

Barnett agreed, saying he wish DeSantis had made the remarks earlier. Regardless, he expressed concern that most RNC members were choosing to ignore the grassroots backlash to another McDaniel term.

“In all honesty, some of these people are probably going to lose their job,” he said, adding, “These conservatives in a lot of these state parties, they are aware of what’s going on and there’ll be some of them being replaced. How many, I don’t know. But I do believe that.”

“Some of these members,” he said, “either don’t believe that or don’t care.”