WASHINGTON – The Republican race for the White House will run through Milwaukee in 2024. But before the party can turn its attention to the national convention in Wisconsin, it must first answer a major question: Who will lead the GOP into the next election?
That will be decided this Friday when Republican National Committee members meet to elect the party’s chair amid calls for change from a vocal faction of Republicans concerned about underwhelming results in recent elections. Incumbent Ronna McDaniel faces opposition from California lawyer and committee member Harmeet Dhillon and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, both ardent supporters of former President Donald Trump.
And while the race has become contentious in recent weeks, both RNC officials and the candidates themselves told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they do not think the contest will impact the party and efforts to unify ahead of the Republican National Convention in July 2024.
“No matter what happens in this RNC race, Milwaukee is going to have a great convention,” Reince Priebus, chair of the RNC’s host committee, said in an interview.
That’s not to say the race hasn’t shaken things up.
Dhillon, whose firm represented Trump during the Jan. 6 committee’s investigations, emerged as the leading choice for conservatives who largely blamed McDaniel for the party’s recent election setbacks — from Republicans losing the House in 2018 to the presidency in 2020 to failing to retake the Senate this past November. She has called for a “fresh direction” for the party and has been critical of, among other things, how the RNC spends money.
“It's way overdue,” Dhillon told the Journal Sentinel about challenging leadership. “And the fact that we haven't had one for so many years because of, you know, endorsements and just everyone accepting the status quo, which is losing elections — the result of that is there's a lot of pent-up demand now for change in the party.”
Meanwhile, McDaniel, picked by Trump to lead the RNC in late 2016, said in an interview she is “running on unity” and accused Dhillon of leading a “very scorched-earth and vitriolic” campaign. McDaniel said she’s focused on the 168 RNC committee members who will vote in the Jan. 27 chair election and claimed Dhillon has been exerting “maximum pressure from the outside in.”
McDaniel touts relationships built in Milwaukee
McDaniel noted she built relationships during the RNC bidding process with officials in Wisconsin such as Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and city council members and argued a continuity in leadership is important to maintain those bonds. A change, she contended, could impact trust with GOP investors and delay preparations for the Milwaukee convention.
“If we’re so vitriolic towards each other,” McDaniel said, “it’s hard to come together in the end and beat the Democrats.”
McDaniel last month touted the support of more than 100 committee members — well over the simple majority she would need to be reelected — and this week received the endorsement of more than 150 GOP donors.
At the same time, a number of state Republican parties have come out publicly against McDaniel, and McDaniel’s opponents have argued her support is eroding even as top GOP officials express confidence that McDaniel will be reelected.
The RNC chair will steer Republicans through what could be a crowded presidential primary field. McDaniel last year pledged that the GOP would remain neutral in the primary, even if Trump decided to run again. Trump announced his 2024 bid shortly after the midterms.
Wisconsin Republicans split on choice
In Wisconsin, the question of who should lead the party is dividing a number of prominent Republicans.
The billionaire Republican mega-donors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, owners of Wisconsin-based company Uline Inc., who has an employee on the RNC host committee, split between the candidates. Liz Uihlein is supporting McDaniel and Dick Uihlein is backing Dhillon.
Liz Uihlein was among the donors last week who signed a letter touting McDaniel’s achievements as RNC chair, listing as successes voter registration efforts, the opening of community centers in minority-dominated areas and the RNC’s filing of 80 lawsuits as part of purported voter integrity efforts.
In a statement posted to Twitter by Dhillon, Dick Uilein said the Republican Party was at a crossroads and called for new leadership.
“While I appreciate the work Ronna McDaniel has done during her tenure as RNC Chair, it’s time for a leader willing and equipped to prevail in the fight against the radical left,” he said in the statement, later adding: “We do not have the luxury of complacency at this critical juncture.”
There are also signs of splits within the host committee. Kathryn "Murph" Burke, a philanthropist and host committee member, endorsed Dhillon. Priebus, the host committee’s chair, sent a letter in November to the 168 RNC committee members showing his support for McDaniel and praising her leadership.
Ted Kellner, another member of the host committee, put it simply: “I think Ronna’s going to win on a cakewalk."
Still, Republicans have largely indicated they are not concerned the race for RNC chair will impact the party ahead of 2024.
Dhillon called regular challenges to leadership “extremely healthy and constructive” because they can result in discussions that “produce a better outcome.”
Mike Lindell of MyPillow likens contest to speaker of the House debate
Lindell, the pillow salesman who has spread debunked election fraud conspiracies, told the Journal Sentinel he wants to see better communication within the Republican Party from the local level up to the RNC. He referenced the drawn-out infighting among congressional Republicans over electing a speaker of the House and suggested the 15-ballot ordeal was good because it led to concessions and debate.
“I think it’s going to unite us,” Lindell said of the chair race. “We’ll get through it, and I think it should be more educational.”
“I’m not just going to walk away if I’m not the chairman,” Lindell added. “I’m going to offer my help, offer my voice. We have to unite. This is critical. It’s critical to the party.”
For Priebus, who said in an interview that he’s “confident” McDaniel has the votes to be reelected, the current race for RNC chair reminded him of the last time the RNC had a contested leadership race: When Priebus defeated incumbent Michael Steele after seven rounds of voting in 2011.
Priebus called that 2011 race “nasty” and said it was “basically one of the dirtiest races I’ve ever been involved with.” But after he won, he said, the party came together — “And it worked.”
“So while things seem contentious leading up to an election, things can level out pretty quickly,” Priebus said. “And I suspect that’s what’s going to happen here.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republicans prepare for RNC in Milwaukee but leadership undecided