Who will be GOP’s national leader?
California attorney Harmeet Dhillon is
in the running for the post of RNC chair.
Mounting frustration over GOP electoral losses has incited a contentious leadership battle that pits a prominent California Republican against the party’s national leader.
The effort by San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon, whose clients include former President Trump, to oust Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel will be decided at a party meeting in Dana Point that begins Wednesday.
Both women are ardent, vocal Trump supporters — a reflection of the grip the former president still has on the party more than two years after losing the White House. Both have pledged to remain neutral in the 2024 GOP presidential primary if elected as chair.
McDaniel, the niece of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), is widely viewed as having the edge in the race. But Dhillon, a longtime state party leader, has received the support of prominent conservatives, including Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, in a contest that has been laced with what appeared to be calculated attacks about Dhillon’s Sikh faith and McDaniel’s role in the party’s subpar performance in recent elections.
Some committee members are concerned that the increasingly ugly infighting could affect the party’s prospects and hope McDaniel and Dhillon can make peace, regardless of the outcome.
“They’ve both got to talk and agree that whoever wins, the other one’s 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 declined to say whom he will vote for. “If we at the RNC can’t come together, how can we expect voters to come together?” he asked.
A surprise victory by Dhillon would breathe life into a moribund California Republican Party that in recent decades has dwindled into political irrelevance and would follow closely behind Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy’s narrow victory to become speaker of the House. The ascension of California Republicans to the pinnacle of the national political universe would go a long way toward salving the sting of the party’s failure to win any statewide election since 2006.
“Harmeet has more of a shot than what the public expectations are,” said Tim Miller, a former advisor to GOP presidential candidates who worked at the RNC but left the party in 2020. “The smart money is on Ronna. ... Ronna knows all these people, she’s been working the inside game for years, which is a huge advantage. But Harmeet has tapped into legitimate frustration with the RNC.”
The task ahead for the next RNC chair, who will lead the party during the 2024 presidential election, will not be easy. Republican activists and donors are exasperated by Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterm election, the loss of the White House in 2020 and their inability to take control of the Senate and narrow win in the House of Representatives last year, when most analysts predicted a red wave.
Dhillon said these upsets, as well as McDaniel’s decision to seek an unprecedented fourth term, prompted her bid to lead the party. To rebound, she said, the party must promote the use of mail ballots, counter Democratic efforts to boost weak candidates in GOP primaries and provide smarter messaging to young and minority voters.
“There are a lot of changes that need to be made for us to be in fighting shape to win in ’24,” Dhillon said. “I’m tired of Republicans losing elections.”
Born in India, Dhillon, 54, and her family immigrated to Britain, then to New York City, before settling in rural North Carolina. Her parents registered as Republicans after they became naturalized citizens, in part because of the disdain her father, an orthopedic surgeon, had for trial lawyers because of medical malpractice lawsuits. They were also driven by the persecution of Sikhs in India, which was decried by Republican Jesse Helms, at the time a senator from North Carolina. Dhillon’s parents hosted fundraisers for Helms.
After law school, Dhillon settled in San Francisco. She became active in Bay Area politics after hosting debate watch parties during 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 as one of California’s three representatives on the Republican National Committee, on which she has served ever since.
Dhillon and her law firm’s prominence grew exponentially during the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic. She frequently appears on conservative media, and her firm has filed lawsuits over conservative rights on college campuses, pandemic restrictions and other causes dear to Republican voters. This month, a nonprofit she founded sued a California school district for allegedly helping transition an elementary school student to another gender without informing her parents.
“Harmeet’s tough; she has not been afraid of challenging incumbents,” said Ron Nehring, a former state party chair. “She’s very action-oriented, and it has worked to her benefit.”
Dhillon was a delegate for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the 2016 presidential election until he dropped out, at which point she joined her husband, Sarvjit Randhawa, as a Trump delegate.
Her tactics, particularly her work on behalf of election deniers such as Trump, have been criticized. Her law firm represented the former president during the congressional hearings over the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. In the aftermath of the 2022 raid of Mar-a-Lago, Dhillon called the leadership of the FBI “thoroughly corrupt” and said the bureau and the Department of Justice had “engaged in elaborate meddling in multiple elections now over the last couple of elections.”
She also accused federal authorities of concealing President Biden’s handling of classified documents to influence the outcome of the 2022 election.
Dhillon raised money for Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, telling followers on Twitter to “STOP THE STEAL” and encouraging them to chip in to Trump’s election defense fund. She also represented failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, an election denier who may appear on Dhillon’s behalf at this week’s meeting.
Trump chose McDaniel to be RNC chair after he was elected in 2016 and endorsed her for reelection twice. But he has publicly stayed neutral in the contest between McDaniel and Dhillon.
“I can honestly say I like both of them,” he said last week on the podcast “The Water Cooler.” “Let them fight it out.”
Both candidates argue that the contest is being influenced by consultants who want lucrative contracts with the RNC. But the ugliest controversy in the race centers on religion.
Dhillon received 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 Dhillon would jeopardize the party’s focus on religious freedom because she is not Christian; this included sharing a video of her delivering the Sikh prayer in Punjabi.
“I was shocked, disappointed and frankly disgusted that someone was willing to use bigotry as a tactic to whip votes for their preferred candidate,” North Dakota committee member Lori Hinz, a Dhillon supporter, emailed fellow committee members Thursday. She said she was urged by a McDaniel ally not to support Dhillon because of her religion.
The attacks on Dhillon’s faith echo those lobbed against her when she successfully ran for vice chair of the California Republican Party in 2013 — the convention hall was strewn with fliers that called her a “Taj Mahal princess,” and rivals whispered that she would slaughter a goat at the dais during meetings.
McDaniel, whose representatives did not respond to requests for comment, has denounced the slurs. She noted that she is Mormon, also a faith that has long been attacked.
“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 freedom, and these attacks have no place in our party or our politics. As a member of a minority faith myself, I would never condone such attacks.”
McDaniel, 49, is the former leader of the Michigan Republican Party. She stopped using her maiden name, Romney, once she became RNC chair, reportedly because Trump asked her to, according to the Washington Post. Sen. Mitt Romney has been fiercely critical of Trump, who has labeled him a loser.
The contest will be decided by a majority vote of the RNC’s 168 committee members. McDaniel released a list of more than 100 members who support her, backing that should guarantee her reelection. Dhillon declined to say how many members back her bid.
Among McDaniel’s supporters is Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann, who praised her support of keeping his state’s caucus as the nation’s first Republican presidential voting contest in 2024 and pushed back at criticism of her over the party’s performance last year.
“The RNC chair doesn’t pick candidates and deals with what’s handed to them,” Kaufmann said, pointing to victories in his state and others.
Dhillon’s fellow California RNC members — state party Chair Jessica Millan Patterson and Shawn Steel, husband of Orange County Republican Rep. Michelle Steel — are also backing McDaniel. Neither responded to requests for comment.
MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, an ardent Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist, is also running for chair. He is expected to have marginal support at the RNC meeting this week at the Waldorf Astoria.
A private candidate forum is scheduled for Wednesday evening, and the chair vote is expected to take place Friday.
The vote is cast by secret ballot, Nehring notes.
“Typically, the vote tally for an incumbent is highest on the first ballot. If they cannot make it on the first ballot, it’s unlikely they win on a subsequent ballot,” he said. “The election is a referendum on the incumbent.”