RNC braces for three-way chair race at winter meeting


CNN  — 

A three-way race for chairman of the Republican National Committee could deal another setback to a party looking to enter the 2024 cycle with a unified front.

Each of the three candidates running for chair – incumbent Ronna McDaniel, California-based attorney Harmeet Dhillon and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell – confirmed to CNN either themselves, or through allies, that they have qualified to be on the ballot. It will be the first time in more than a decade that a drawn-out balloting process – set to take place when the committee’s 168-member voting body gathers in Southern California later this month – is likely to occur, said multiple people familiar with the process. A spokesperson for the RNC declined to comment on the status of any candidate qualifications.

According to an email sent to RNC members last week, candidates running in contested races had until 10 a.m. Friday to qualify for the ballot by submitting “written evidence” demonstrating their majority support from national committee members in at least three states. McDaniel, Dhillon and Lindell will each participate in candidate forums before committee members vote by secret ballot on January 27 to elect their next leader.

“Yes 3 are in,” Lindell said in a text message Friday when asked if he had submitted his paperwork to qualify for the chairman race. The MyPillow founder, who is a prominent supporter of former President Donald Trump’s election fraud claims, declined to identify which committee members were backing his campaign.

“I’ve told mine I want to be discreet because I don’t want the media to attack them,” he said.

A person close to Dhillon also confirmed that the California committeewoman had submitted the necessary paperwork to qualify and plans to have “a full whip operation on the ground” at the winter meeting in two weeks. That operation will include nightly receptions for committee members and a handful of high-profile surrogates, who are flying in for the occasion, including defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Turning Point USA President Charlie Kirk, this person said.

“We feel very, very good. As of yesterday, I’ve thought, ‘Good God, there is a very, very clear path to win this thing,’” the person close to Dhillon said.

“Ronna McDaniel looks forward to participating in the candidate forum at winter meeting,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for McDaniel’s reelection campaign.

The contested chair race will occur just weeks after House Republicans began their new majority with a dayslong struggle to elect their own leader following the party’s underwhelming performance in the midterm elections and amid furious objections to Kevin McCarthy – who was eventually elected speaker – by some of the most conservative members of the House GOP Conference. Another protracted leadership election inside the Republican Party’s governing body could deal a second blow to the GOP in its quest for party unity and exacerbate ongoing strategy debates across the party.

The candidate forums, which have been held in years past, will allow candidates running for chairman and other contested positions – including co-chair and treasurer – to make their case to committee members in a format of their choosing, according to a person familiar with the planning. While each will be allotted the same amount of time, one candidate could choose to spend the duration speaking directly to members about their campaign or to field questions from members the entire time.

“I don’t think it’s going to be raucous, per se, but I’m sure both of Ronna’s challengers will forcefully argue why she should go and why they should replace her,” said one committee member who plans to support Dhillon.

Vaughn, the spokeswoman for McDaniel, said the current chairwoman will use the candidate forum “to continue her conversations with members of the 168, our party’s grassroots leaders who are eager to unite together to compete and win in 2023 and 2024.”

McDaniel has declined to engage in a public debates with Dhillon and Lindell set to be hosted by radio personality John Fredericks and the right-wing outlet Real America’s Voice at the California resort in Dana Point where RNC members will huddle later this month. Vaughn cited the RNC-sanctioned candidate forum as McDaniel’s reason for not wanting to participate, adding that the incumbent chairwoman “will be overseeing party business during the remaining portion of the RNC meeting.”

Had she agreed to participate in the Fredericks forum, however, it’s unlikely McDaniel would have been given a fair platform. The Virginia-based talk show host has previously called McDaniel, who is running for her fourth term, “a three-time loser” overseeing “the biggest disaster I’ve ever seen.”

With two weeks left until RNC members huddle in California, the race for chair has taken a heated turn.

A string of no-confidence votes against McDaniel by various state parties has further emboldened Dhillon and her allies, while some opponents of the California attorney have begun quietly raising questions about her Sikh faith, according to two people familiar with those conversations.

“We must reject religious bigotry [within] our great party. Attacking Sikh faith of an Asian-American candidate 4 RNC chair has the optics of racism!” Oregon committeeman Solomon Yue, an early Dhillon supporter, wrote on Twitter earlier this week, alongside a screenshot of a text message from a fellow RNC member alleging that they had been approached by “a former RNC employee living in a southern state” trying to circulate a video of Dhillon delivering a Sikh prayer at the 2016 GOP convention in Cleveland.

Following the allegations, McDaniel, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued a statement to NBC News condemning “religious bigotry in any form.”

“As a member of a minority faith myself, I would never condone such attacks. I have vowed to run a positive campaign and will continue to do so,” she said.

While more than 100 RNC members signed on to a November letter endorsing McDaniel’s reelection as chair, allies of her opponents claim there have been cracks in her support in the weeks since. Several state executive committees have held no-confidence votes against McDaniel, with another vote set to occur in Florida.

Both the Alabama and Louisiana Republican parties have approved resolutions or publicly urged RNC members to vote against McDaniel. In Arizona, Republican leaders late last year called on McDaniel to resign, while the Texas GOP executive committee has urged its three RNC committee members to back fresh leadership instead of supporting McDaniel. In Florida, two candidates running for chair of the state GOP party recently signed on to a petition to force a no-confidence vote against McDaniel, the fate of which remains unknown at this time.

Still, Vaughn claimed in a statement that “member support for the Chairwoman has grown since her announcement” to seek reelection.

While McDaniel allies continue to tout her early declared support from 100-plus members, it is unclear if that support will hold when committee members vote later this month. Because votes are cast by secret ballot, it is possible some signatories of the pro-McDaniel letter could defect without revealing their identities.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of public debates for RNC chair that will be hosted by Real America’s Voice.