California Republican hopes to oust GOP national leader
Growing frustration over the GOP’s election losses has sparked a contentious leadership battle, pitting a prominent California Republican against the party’s national leader.
The effort by San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon, whose client includes former President Trump, to oust Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel will be decided at a party meeting in Dana Point beginning Wednesday.
Both women are ardent, vocal Trump supporters — a reflection of the influence the former president still has at the party more than two years after losing the White House. Both have pledged to remain neutral if elected in the 2024 GOP presidential primary.
McDaniel, niece of Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), is widely regarded as the one coming out on top in the race. But Dhillon, a longtime leader of the state party, has garnered the support of prominent conservatives, including Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, in a contest laced with seemingly calculated attacks on Dhillon’s Sikh faith and McDaniel’s role in the party’s underperformance in the last elections.
Some committee members are concerned that the increasingly ugly infighting could hurt the party’s prospects and hope McDaniel and Dhillon can make peace whatever the outcome.
“You both have to talk and agree that whoever wins, the other is going to say the right things and do the right things,” said Mississippi committee member Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Henry Barbour declined to say who he will vote for in the competition. “If we can’t come together at the RNC, how can we expect voters to come together?”
A surprise victory by Dhillon would also breathe life into a dying California Republican party that has shrunk to political irrelevance in recent decades, and would come close behind Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy’s narrow victory to become Speaker of the House. The rise of California Republicans to the top of the national political universe would do much to ease the sting of the party’s failure to win a statewide election since 2006.
“Harmeet got more opportunities than the public expected,” said Tim Miller, a former adviser to GOP presidential candidates who worked at the RNC but left the party in 2020. “The smart money is with Ronna. … The RNC chairman’s race is very much in baseball. Ronna knows all these people, she has been working in Inside Game for years, which is a huge advantage. But Harmeet has tapped into legitimate frustration with the RNC.”
But the task ahead for the next RNC chairman, who will lead the party in the 2024 presidential election, will not be an easy one. Republican activists and donors are angered by Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterm elections, their loss of the White House in 2020, and their inability to take control of the Senate and narrow victory in Congress last year, as most analysts a predicted red wave.
Dhillon said those losses, along with McDaniel’s decision to seek an unprecedented fourth term, prompted her to lead the party. To help the recovery, the Republican Party must encourage the use of mail-in ballots, counteract Democrat efforts to empower weak candidates in the GOP primary, and deliver smarter messages to young and minority voters.
“A lot of changes need to be made for us 24 to be in fighting shape to win,” Dhillon said. “I’m tired of Republicans losing elections.”
Indian-born Dhillon, 54, immigrated with her family to the UK and then New York City before settling in rural North Carolina. Her parents registered as Republicans after becoming naturalized citizens, in part because of their father’s disdain for medical malpractice attorneys, who was an orthopedist. They were also driven by the persecution of Sikhs in India, which then-Sen. Jesse Helms (RN.C.) had opposed. Dhillon’s parents held fundraisers for Helms.
After graduating from law school, Dhillon eventually settled in San Francisco. She became active in Bay Area politics after hosting debate-watch parties for President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, and was elected vice chair of the state GOP in 2013. Three years later, she was elected one of the three California representatives on the Republican National Committee, of which she has been a member ever since.
The notoriety of Dhillon and her law firm grew exponentially during the Trump administration and the pandemic. She appears frequently in conservative media, and her law firm has filed lawsuits over conservative rights on college campuses, COVID restrictions, and other concerns close to the hearts of Republican voters. Earlier this month, a nonprofit she founded sued a California school district for allegedly helping an elementary school student transition to a different gender without notifying her parents.
“Harmeet is tough, she’s not afraid to challenge incumbents,” said Ron Nehring, a former leader of the state party. “She’s very action-oriented and it has worked to her advantage.”
Dhillon was Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) delegate in the 2016 presidential election until he resigned. At this point, she joined her husband Sarvjit Randhawa as a Trump delegate and vocal supporter of the developer-turned-reality-tv-star.
Their tactics have been criticized, especially their commitment to election deniers like Trump. Her law firm represented the former president during congressional hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, riot. After the FBI’s 2022 raid on Mar-a-Lago, Dhillon called the federal law enforcement agency’s leadership “corrupt through and through,” saying the FBI and the Department of Justice had “meddled in several elections in recent years.” She also accused federal authorities of covering up President Biden’s handling of classified documents to influence the outcome of the 2022 election.
Dhillon represented failed Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, a standoff who may appear on Dhillon’s behalf at this week’s meeting.
Dhillon also helped raise money for Trump’s legal effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, telling her followers on Twitter to “STOP THE STEAL” and encouraging them to get involved in Trump’s election defense fund.
Trump chose McDaniel as RNC chairman after his election in 2016 and twice endorsed her for re-election. But he has remained publicly neutral in the fight between McDaniel and Dhillon.
“I can honestly say I like both of them,” he said on The Water Cooler podcast last week. “Let them fight it out.”
Both candidates argue that the competition is influenced by consultants who want lucrative contracts with the RNC. But the ugliest controversy in the race is about religion.
Dhillon gained national attention when she sang a Sikh invocation at the 2016 GOP convention. She and her allies allege that McDaniel supporters are undermining her candidacy by saying that because she is not Christian, Dhillon would jeopardize the party’s focus on religious freedom, including releasing a video of her performing Sikh prayers in Punjabi holds.
“I was shocked, disappointed and frankly disgusted that anyone was willing to use bigotry as a tactic to gain votes for their preferred candidate,” North Dakota committee member Lori Hinz, a Dhillon supporter, wrote in a Thursday Email to other committee members. She said she was urged by a McDaniel ally not to support Dhillon because of her religion. “This can’t be who we are as a party,” she wrote.
The attacks on Dhillon’s faith mirror those leveled at her when she ran successfully for vice chairman of the California Republican Party in 2013 – the convention hall was littered with pamphlets calling Dhillon the “Taj Mahal princess” and whispering rivals that they would slaughter a goat on the podium during the sessions.
McDaniel, whose rep did not respond to requests for comment, has denounced the insults. She noted that she was a Mormon, also a belief that has long been under attack.
“I wholeheartedly condemn religious bigotry in any form,” McDaniel said in a Fox News Digital article published Friday. “We are the party of faith, family and liberty and these attacks have no place in our party or politics. As a member of a religious minority, I would never condone such attacks.”
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McDaniel, 49, is the former leader of the Michigan Republican Party. She stopped using her maiden name, Romney, when she became RNC chairwoman, reportedly because Trump asked her to, according to the Washington Post. Trump and Sen. Mitt Romney are heavily critical of each other, with Romney attacking Trump’s character and Trump calling Romney a loser.
McDaniel released a list of more than 100 committee members supporting her, which should guarantee her re-election. The competition is decided by majority vote of the 168 members of the RNC. Dhillon declined to say how many committee members support her bid.
McDaniel’s supporters include Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who hailed her support for making his state’s 2024 caucus the first Republican presidential contest in the country and hit back at criticism of McDaniel for the party’s performance over the past year .
“The RNC chairman does not select candidates and deals with what is handed to them,” Kaufmann said, pointing to victories in his state and others. “Everybody wanted to be like Iowa and Ohio and have their red wave. It did not happen.”
Dhillon’s California RNC colleagues — state party leader Jessica Millan Patterson and Shawn Steel, husband of Orange County Republican Rep. Michelle Steel — also support McDaniel. None responded to requests for comment.
My Pillow founder Mike Lindell, an ardent Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist, is also running for the presidency. He is expected to receive minor support at this week’s RNC meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. A private candidate forum is scheduled for Wednesday evening, while the chairman’s vote is expected to take place on Friday.
The vote will be carried out secretly, according to Nehring.
“Normally, the number of votes for an incumbent is highest on the first ballot. If they don’t make it on the first vote, they are unlikely to win on a subsequent vote,” he said. “The election is a referendum on the incumbent.”