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Ronna McDaniel pledged a neutral GOP primary for 2024. Trump will test her.

Gearing up for a likely fourth term as the GOP chair, McDaniel has the job of ensuring Trump doesn’t get a coronation as polls show he still commands huge support among Republicans.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel speaks at the Republican National Committee headquarters on Nov. 9, 2020, in Washington.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel speaks at RNC headquarters in Washington on Nov. 9, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

CHICAGO — Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, shared a warm moment onstage with her predecessor last week for an announcement that Milwaukee had been picked to host the 2024 GOP presidential convention.

“One thing Ronna and I are good at is raising a lot of money,” former Chairman Reince Priebus, the chair of the Milwaukee Host Committee, said on the final day of the RNC’s summer meeting. But she didn’t do it alone. Donald Trump put her in the job, and his name and celebrity bankrolled the committee.

McDaniel may soon face a fresh challenge: upholding her pledge that the national party will stay neutral in its coming presidential primary. McDaniel is preparing to run for a fourth consecutive term in January. If she wins, she would become the longest-serving RNC chair since the 1800s, refereeing a contested 2024 Republican presidential nomination fight in which her old boss is likely to be the front-runner.

“She has not announced anything and is focused on the November elections,” said John Hammond, an RNC member from Indiana. “That said, my conversations with her indicate she is open to running again and likely to do so, which I believe would be very popular within the RNC membership.”

It’s almost certain she’ll have the votes, several of the committee’s 168 members said in interviews, but what’s less certain is whether she can refrain from favoring the candidate who has been her political patron.

“I think that would be a big question for her when we get there,” said Bill Palatucci, an RNC member from New Jersey. He said he is “fighting tooth and nail every day to show that Republicans can be responsive and willing to work with the other side. And so, some of the conduct of the RNC over the last two years makes life difficult for a Republican like me in New Jersey.”

Trump may face competition from former Vice President Mike Pence, ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, all of whom have been laying the groundwork for 2024 bids. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the vice chair of the House Jan. 6 committee, might also jump in the race.

McDaniel is in a tough spot as the leader of the RNC. Her job involves ensuring that Trump doesn’t get a coronation — a competitive advantage courtesy of a fawning RNC. But polls indicate he still commands huge support within the GOP rank and file, and he did, after all, give her the most prominent position she’s ever held.

Democrats grappled unsuccessfully with neutrality in 2016 in the primary between Hillary Clinton, the establishment favorite, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the outside insurgent. Internal emails showed that the Democratic National Committee, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida at the time, contrived to boost Clinton at Sanders’ expense.

In various ways, the RNC has tended to Trump’s interests since he left office. The committee has paid part of his legal fees, and it voted this year to censure Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the only two Republicans on the Jan. 6 committee. Kinzinger, too, could end up facing Trump in ’24. Last year, the RNC paid $175,000 to hold part of a donor retreat at Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

McDaniel sided with Trump when Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, her uncle, wrote an op-ed in 2019 critical of the former president. In a tweet, she referred to Romney, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, as an “incoming Republican freshman senator” whose comments were “disappointing and unproductive.” 

A person close to McDaniel said the RNC has already shown that it won’t take sides in the GOP presidential contest, which begins in earnest after the midterm elections in the fall.

The committee plans to hold presidential primary debates in 2024 and to apply the same procedural rules as in 2016, when Trump and a raft of other Republicans battled for the nomination, the source said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. “The playing field is level. We plan on this being a contested primary.”

That could prove helpful to lesser-known candidates who would be appearing onstage with Trump. Given the former president’s name recognition, he might be better off if there were no primary debates, lest the television exposure elevate one of his challengers.

As for Trump’s legal fees, the payments cover only the New York state attorney general’s investigation into his business dealings, the source said. The RNC decided that the probe led by Attorney General Letitia James, who vowed as a candidate in 2018 to aggressively investigate Trump’s financial activities, was politically motivated and that it was fair to cover such fees.

But the committee won’t pay for any of Trump’s legal fees growing out of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the source added. The RNC didn’t make McDaniel available for an interview.

In February, a judge in New York dismissed the idea that political bias had fueled James’ probe. After he reviewed thousands of records that James’ office had subpoenaed, Judge Arthur Engoron wrote that James had “a sufficient legal basis for continuing [the] investigation, which undercuts the notion that this ongoing investigation is based on personal animus, not facts and law.”

As she approached the start of her current term, McDaniel said privately that it would be her last. One person reported to be interested in the job was David Bossie, an honorary state chairman from Maryland in Trump’s 2020 campaign, who was a deputy campaign manager in his 2016 race.

But McDaniel has earned a loyal following among RNC members, who credit her fundraising prowess and say she has done an admirable job navigating the MAGA and — such as it is — the anti-Trump wings of the party. She has helped raise $1.5 billion during her tenure. 

“She’s been very helpful to Connecticut and done a very good job as chair and represents us well,” said Ben Proto, a RNC member who chairs the Connecticut Republican Party. “If someone else is interested in it [the chairmanship] and she’s not, we can talk about that. If she is, then they’re going to have to show they can do a better job than Ronna, which would be difficult to do.”

Another candidate could emerge but would have a difficult time gaining traction unless Trump, for whatever reason, turned against her. A Trump spokesman didn’t reply to a request for comment.

“She’s been a good custodian of the party but not a national leader,” a person close to Trump said.