By STEVE PEOPLES
DANA POINT, Calif. (AP) — Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel won her bid Friday to lead the GOP for two more years, prevailing in an election that highlighted fierce internal divisions that threaten to plague the party into the next presidential season.
McDaniel, whom Donald Trump tapped as RNC chair in 2016, won the the secret ballot vote 111 to 51. The high-profile election played out inside a luxury resort on the Southern California coast as the RNC’s 168 voting members – activists and elected officials from all 50 states – gathered for the committee’s annual winter meeting.
With the victory, McDaniel becomes the longest-serving RNC chair since the Civil War. Yet friends and foes alike agree that she will not be leading the RNC from a position of strength.
While Trump privately backed McDaniel, powerful forces from within his “Make America Great Again” movement lined up behind McDaniel’s chief rival, Trump attorney Harmeet Dhillon.
Dhillon waged an aggressive challenge against McDaniel that featured allegations of chronic misspending, mismanagement and even religious bigotry against Dhillon’s Sikh faith — all claims that McDaniel denied. Above all, the case against McDaniel centered on deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the party after continuous election losses since Trump tapped her to lead the committee following his upset 2016 victory.
Ahead of the vote, Dhillon cited the Republican base’s overwhelming desire for change and threatened political retribution for RNC members who dared support McDaniel’s reelection.
“Ignoring the will of the voters in your state is a good way not to get elected again,” Dhillon told The Associated Press.
Before the vote, McDaniel pleaded with RNC members to put their differences aside after it was over.
“Coming together is the beginning. Staying together is progress. But working together is success,” she said. “We have to come together after this meeting and focus on what we have ahead of us.”
Several high-profile Trump allies publicly called for McDaniel’s ouster. Kari Lake, the failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate who has spread debunked claims of voter fraud, courted RNC members on Dhillon’s behalf this week inside the conference hotel. And from afar, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential contender, spoke out against McDaniel on the eve of the vote.
“I think we need a change. I think we need to get some new blood in the RNC,” DeSantis said in an interview with Florida’s Voice, citing three “substandard election cycles in a row” under McDaniel’s leadership.
Meanwhile, Trump quietly supported McDaniel, a niece of Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, and dispatched a handful of his lieutenants to Southern California this week to advocate on her behalf.
The former president avoided making a public endorsement at McDaniel’s request, according to those with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. McDaniel’s team is confident she will win without his public backing, allowing her to maintain a sense of neutrality heading into the 2024 presidential primary season.
According to its rules, the RNC must remain neutral in the presidential primary. Trump is the only announced GOP candidate so far, but other high-profile contenders are expected in the coming months.
McDaniel is now set to lead the RNC through the 2024 election. Under her leadership, the committee will control much of the 2024 presidential nominating process – including the debates and voting calendar — while directing the sprawling nationwide infrastructure designed to elect the next Republican president.
Dhillon, whose law firm earned more than $400,000 representing Trump and his political organizations in the 2022 midterms, had promised to leave her law practice if elected. The California attorney also vowed to remain independent in the 2024 Republican primary should she win.
Also in the race was MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist who secured enough support to qualify for the ballot.
Lindell has already endorsed Trump’s 2024 campaign and said he would not change his mind if his longshot bid is successful Friday.
“I’ve never not endorsed Donald Trump,” Lindell said. “I’m never moving off that space.”