DANA POINT, Calif. -- Republican National Committee members will elect a new chair at a ritzy hotel in Dana Point on Friday, closing out an unusually contentious race that could have outsized implications as the GOP gears up for the 2024 elections.
Incumbent Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who is running for a fourth term, is the favorite in Friday's election, though she faces a challenge from attorney Harmeet Dhillon and a long-shot bid from My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell. Typically a sleepy affair, the chair's race this year morphed into a debate over personality and strategy, with surrogates for the candidates lobbing personal attacks over last year's election operations.
The acrimony has largely been fueled by a broader reckoning over Republicans' underperformance in the 2022 elections, with McDaniel insisting certain aspects of the midterms were out of her control and Dhillon panning what she claims was a fundamental lack of strategy and misallocation of resources on the part of the national party.
McDaniel still retains support from well over half of the 168 voting RNC members -- the threshold she needs to clinch reelection -- though frustrated members say the stakes are high for whomever wins the chair.
"I think Ronna is likely to win but probably by a smaller margin than she may expect. There is pretty profound desire for change from the committee. But there's also dissatisfaction with the way Harmeet has run her campaign," said one undecided committee member. "And I think the important thing is, whoever wins, the party has got to come together -- and that starts with Ronna and Harmeet."
"2024 just has so much at stake with the White House in play," this member said. "I think many Americans think the country is on the wrong track. As a party, we just can't afford to underperform in '24. We clearly underperformed in '22, and there are a lot of reasons for that. We can't do it again."
Ahead of the race, McDaniel released a letter boasting endorsements from more than 100 of the 168 voting RNC members, handing her buffer room to shed support to a challenger and still be on strong footing.
Dhillon, who has represented former President Donald Trump against the House Jan. 6 committee, also got a late start in the race.
McDaniel only added to the number of supporters in recent days, announcing endorsements from a small handful of state party chairs who are also RNC members.
Dhillon, however, has waged a full court press, leaning on both meetings with RNC members and outside allies including Fox News personalities to raise the heat and try to help her beat that daunting math.
RNC members predict that she's succeeded in peeling off at least a few signees from McDaniel's letter, though it's unclear just how many defectors Dhillon can win over in Friday's secret ballot.
In an interview, Dhillon claimed the pro-McDaniel letter is inaccurate and said she's "hoping and planning to win," though she wouldn't say how many votes she believes she has behind her heading into Friday.
"I have an estimate, but I'm not sharing that information publicly because some of those people want to stay private," she insisted. "That said, several people are privately committed to us, and I'm picking up votes -- several a day."
Dhillon said her challenge to McDaniel is fueled by three main concerns, including "an inexplicable failure" by RNC leadership to take advantage of mail-in and early voting to the full extent that it's allowed -- even as Trump and some other Republicans tell voters to embrace in-person ballots.
Dhillon also accused the national party of "wasting" millions of dollars on "consultants who don't produce results" and failing to promote "clear and concise messaging and direction for our candidates," citing conflicting stances among candidates around the Supreme Court's ruling scrapping constitutional protections for abortion.
"We failed," Dhillon said. "And again, these are sort of critical, basic building blocks of winning elections. And until we get these things right, I don't know that donors, voters or candidates are going to have confidence in the party, and that's terrible because the RNC plays a critical role in our elections."
Dhillon also argued that McDaniel didn't take a muscular enough approach in advising local and state officials on which candidates could be potent in general elections.
"Ultimately, voters have to select who the candidate is. But there are many inflection points along the way between the time somebody wakes up and says, 'I can be the next United States senator,' versus the day we are counting the ballots and coming up short,'" Dhillon said. "I think the idea that everybody else gets a say, Democrats get a say, President Trump gets a say, various PACs get to say, but the party doesn't get a say? I don't think so."
Kari Lake, who traveled to the RNC meeting in California to drum up support for Dhillon after her failed Arizona gubernatorial bid, echoed the need for different leadership.
"I am so excited to see such quality candidates stepping forward to say, 'Let's move on, Ronna. Thank you very much for your service, we need a change in America,'" Lake told reporters Wednesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who cruised to reelection in the midterms despite GOP disappointments elsewhere, told conservative activist and host Charlie Kirk on Thursday that he "like[s] what Harmeet Dhillon has said about getting the RNC outside" of Washington.
"I think we need a change, and I think we need to get some new blood in the RNC," DeSantis said.
Lindell asserted in a phone interview with ABC News that he and Dhillon have enough combined power to at least keep the simple majority away from McDaniel.
"I believe Ronna McDaniel is well under the 85 needed," Lindell said. "Kind of like what happened in Congress [with Kevin McCarthy's protracted speakership election]. This is very similar, only it's very much to my advantage because it's a secret vote."
"If it was an open vote, I think it'd be hard for anybody to win because of the promises that are made -- and all of the sudden you're going to get that carrot pulled back if you vote elsewhere," he said.
Lindell, like Dhillon, sought to project confidence about his chances to overcome McDaniel's broad support.
"Remember, it's a secret ballot -- and guess what, no machines. Isn't that great?" Lindell said, laughing. (The businessman has continued to spread baseless claims about electronic voting machines.)
Despite the challenges, McDaniel's pull on her caucus remains strong. During a candidate forum on Wednesday night at the Waldorf Astoria in Dana Point, McDaniel was the only candidate to receive a standing ovation from RNC members, according to several sources who were present in the room. Supporters milled about the lobby of the Waldorf later that evening, sporting campaign buttons -- a bright red "Roll With RONNA for RNC chair" fastened to several members' lapels and dresses.
McDaniel, whose spokesperson did not make her available for an interview after multiple requests, has insisted that her critics are overestimating the power of the RNC chair and that she does not have the power to pick candidates or impose messaging discipline on any nominee.
And with six years of running the RNC under her belt, McDaniel, a member of the Romney family's whose GOP ties stretch back decades, still boasts a hefty roster of supporters who maintain that she has the institutional knowledge and donor base to propel the GOP to victory next year.
"I think she's demonstrated the skills and the temperament and the passion to run the organization in a way that's gonna benefit parties around the country and, hopefully, our presidential candidate, too," said an RNC member supporting McDaniel.
One thing uniting McDaniel and Dhillon are vows to remain neutral in the 2024 GOP primary -- as mandated by RNC bylaws -- despite both of their links to Trump and claims from members of different camps that their preferred candidate's opponent would not be able to sufficiently cut ties.
But beyond debates over campaign operations, what has made the race particularly divisive is the sharpening of swipes over strategy into attacks on character and professional threats.
Oscar Brock, a national committee member from Tennessee, sent an email in November to others in the RNC blasting McDaniel after Trump dined with antisemites Nick Fuentes and Ye, saying he was "flabbergasted" by what he suggested was an insufficient response by the national party.
One Dhillon ally, meanwhile, released other members' contact information and Kirk, a hardline activist supporting Dhillon, sent out an email to RNC members warning he could replace them with those who "better represent the grassroots voice." On top of that, Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have promoted Dhillon and criticized McDaniel in an apparent bid to apply pressure to the 168 who will elect the chair.
"This was the first time that I'm aware of where we've had a lot more outside involvement. I think for Harmeet, I think that was a smart strategy, but I wouldn't say it was perfectly implemented. And I think it's helped her and hurt her," the undecided RNC member said. "The strategy is probably a smart one, but I think she overplayed her hand"
"We had people like Charlie Kirk sending emails to RNC members threatening us. That's not very effective. Certainly doesn't make him very popular with RNC members," the member said. "And I think that really hurt her."
Members on all sides of the race concede it has gotten ugly, though they say the long-term divisions run no deeper than strategy.
But in the short-term, even Dhillon supporters who say she's run a strong campaign also say her chances are murky.
"The party isn't fractured. A lot of us are simply disappointed with Ronna's stewardship of the RNC and know we need a change," Bill Palatucci, a member from New Jersey who endorsed Dhillon, said earlier this week.
Still, "If I was a betting man, I would think the incumbent wins," Palatucci said. "But Harmeet has run an excellent campaign very aggressively and has made a lot of progress and continues to make progress. So, we really won't know until we get out there."