Since former President Donald J. Trump’s narrow victory in 2016, the Republican Party has suffered at the ballot box every two years, from the loss of the House in 2018 to the loss of the White House and Senate in 2020 to this year’s history-defying midterm disappointments.
Many in the party have now found a scapegoat for the G.O.P.’s struggles who is not named Trump: the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel.
But as Ms. McDaniel struggles for a fourth term at the party’s helm, her re-election fight before the clubby 168 members of the Republican National Committee next month may be diverting G.O.P. leaders from any serious consideration of the thornier problems facing the party heading into the 2024 presidential campaign.
Ms. McDaniel, who was handpicked by Mr. Trump in late 2016 to run the party and whom he enlisted in a scheme to draft fake electors to perpetuate his presidency, could be considered a Trump proxy by Republicans eager to begin to eradicate what many consider to be the party’s pre-eminent problem: the former president’s influence over the G.O.P.
Those Republicans, whose voices have grown louder in the wake of the party’s weak November showing, see any hopes of wooing swing voters and moderates back to the G.O.P. as imperiled by Mr. Trump’s endless harping on his own grievances, the taint surrounding his efforts to remain in power after his 2020 defeat, and the continuing dramas around purloined classified documents, his company’s tax fraud conviction and his insistence on trying to make a political comeback.
But Ms. McDaniels is not facing moderation-minded challengers. Her rivals are from the Trumpist right. They include the pillow salesman Mike Lindell, who continues to spin out fanciful election conspiracies, and — more worrying for Ms. McDaniel — a Trump loyalist from California, Harmeet Dhillon, who is backed by some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest defenders, including the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a youthful group of pro-Trump rightists.
Ms. McDaniel has accused Ms. Dhillon, who was co-chair of the election denying group Lawyers for Trump in 2020, of conducting “a scorched-earth campaign” against her by rallying outside activists “to put maximum pressure on the R.N.C. members” who will choose the party leader for the next two years in late January in Dana Point, Calif.
“It’s been a very vitriolic campaign,” Ms. McDaniel said in an interview, adding: “I’m all for scorched earth against Democrats. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do against other Republicans.”
The candidacy of Mr. Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive who exemplifies the conspiracy-driven fringe, has put still more right-wing pressure on Ms. McDaniel, who refuses to say Joseph R. Biden Jr. was fairly elected in 2020. (Mr. Lindell’s latest conspiracy theory is that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Mr. Trump’s biggest rival so far for the 2024 presidential nomination, unfairly won re-election in November.)
The circus brewing ahead of the R.N.C.’s Jan. 25 gathering does not bode well for members who believe the party’s troubles stem from Mr. Trump.
“The former president has done so much damage to this country and to this party,” said Bill Palatucci, a committee member from New Jersey, who described the R.N.C. chair election as shaping up to be “a Hobson’s choice.”
“We have to acknowledge that 2022 was a disaster, and we need to do things differently,” he said, adding, “I would prefer and still hope there would be a different option.”
The R.N.C. has undertaken what it says is a serious analysis of the 2022 results, led by Henry Barbour of Mississippi, the son of the state’s former governor, Haley Barbour, and a co-author of the so-called autopsy that the party ordered up after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss. That report counseled a more inclusive attitude toward voters of color and moderate swing voters, and a more open stand on overhauling immigration laws — the opposite tack taken by the party during the Trump era.
The 2022 review committee includes Jane Brady, a former attorney general of Delaware, and Kim Borchers, a committee member from Kansas, but it is also being co-chaired by Ms. Dhillon, who, at least for now, has spent the past weeks rallying the hard right, not courting the center.
Ms. Dhillon, in an interview, suggested replacing Ms. McDaniel was a prerequisite for change.
“There may be many reasons for the various losses over the last several years, but what they all have in common is that they occurred under the current leadership, which has promised to change exactly nothing in the next two years,” she said. “The most unifying thing that Ronna could do would be to move on to new challenges, and allow us to unite around a vision that includes much-needed reforms, improvements, and investments in a winning future.”
And the forces gathering against Ms. McDaniel are multiplying. The Republican Party of Florida scheduled a no-confidence vote on Ms. McDaniel in the second half of January.The chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party withdrew his support of Ms. McDaniel, citing an “ever growing divide” among both R.N.C. members and “now, even more so, Republicans across the nation.” The executive committee of the Texas Republican Party unanimously passed a nonbinding vote of no-confidence in Ms. McDaniel, and the Arizona G.O.P. publicly called on her to resign.
Still, the Republican National Committee chair’s race is the ultimate inside game; only members get a vote. And Michael Kuckelman, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party and an R.N.C. member, said he still thinks Ms. McDaniel will easily win another term.
Ms. Dhillon’s pressure campaign is likely bolstering Ms. McDaniel’s support among committee members she has befriended over the past six years, he said, and potentially damaging Ms. Dhillon’s chances of leading the party in the future. Around two-thirds of the committee’s members have already said they will back Ms. McDaniel’s re-election.
Mr. Kuckelman also said Ms. McDaniel was being unfairly blamed for losses in key Senate and House contests. “Everybody needs to bring the temperature down a little bit,” he said. “Ronna McDaniel does not pick candidates. Republicans do that in the primaries. Her job is to get the vote out, and she does get the vote out.”
Moreover, Ms. Dillon’s tactics have antagonized some committee members.
At Turning Point USA’s conference last week in Phoenix — where recriminations and snipingat fellow Republicans seemed to be a theme — Ms. Dhillon appeared on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” show and took her own shots at the committee she seeks to lead.
“Consultants are running the building at the R.N.C.,” she told Mr. Bannon before a cheering crowd. “Those consultants get paid whether we win or lose.”
Her accusations are rankling her colleagues. On an internal committee listserv, Jeff Kent, a committee member from Washington, wrote that Ms. Dhillon “does not have the right to go on national television and defame the character of the R.N.C. members who have chosen not to support her.”
The Turning Point conference concluded with a straw poll in which only 2 percent of the 1,150 conference attendees chose Ms. McDaniel as their preferred party chairwoman going forward. Mr. Kirk then emailed all 168 voting members of the committee to tell them the group would challenge any member who did not heed the call of the party’s activists.
Given the circumstances, Mr. Palatucci said Ms. McDaniel remains favored for re-election, but anything could happen over the next month.
“A lot of her support is soft, and some could be convinced to vote for somebody else,” he said. “R.N.C. members are very experienced politicians. They’re experts at looking you in the eye and saying, ‘I love you,’ and in a secret ballot slitting your throat.”
All of this fighting is over a position whose salary topped $358,000 in 2022 but whose responsibilities are tangential to midterm elections at best.
In the interview, Ms. McDaniel boasted of investments the party has made — in community centers to engage voters of color, especially Latinos; in voter registration drives; and in get-out-the-vote efforts. She cited a New York Times analysis that showed that Republican voter turnout in November was robust.
The problem: Many of those Republicans appeared to vote for Democrats.
“We don’t pick the candidate,” she said. “We do not do the messaging for the candidates, right? They pick consultants, and their own pollsters. So what does the R.N.C. do? We build the infrastructure. We do the voter registration.”
The committee’s role becomes more pivotal during the presidential campaign, raising money for the party’s nominee and staging the convention, which is set for mid-July 2024 in Milwaukee. It will also try to unify the party during what may be an exceptionally contentious primary season.
Party chairs usually take a back seat to the president, who commonly calls the shots from the White House. And Ms. McDaniel said she had really only begun to put her imprimatur on the R.N.C. since Mr. Trump left the White House. “These last few years, in my mind, have been the first few years I’ve been able to really innovate,” she said.
She cited efforts like those on Republican community centers, voter registration and legal actions around voting as important to continue. “We have to keep that going heading into a presidential year,” she said. “After that, I will happily step aside.”
But Ms. McDaniel’s keep-it-going attitude may be her biggest liability. Some committee members who do not like Ms. Dhillon’s tactics or solutions nevertheless worry about the current chairwoman’s insistence that all is well.
“We need a leadership change; the bottom line is the status quo is unacceptable,” Mr. Palatucci said. “This election is a month and a half away. A lot can happen. I’m expecting some movement. And certainly the storm that Harmeet is instigating is causing a very good debate within the committee, and that’s worth having.”