DANA POINT, California — One big question dominated last week’s Republican National Committee meeting: Can the official party apparatus truly be neutral in the GOP presidential primaries in 2024? For years, the RNC has been inextricably linked to former President Donald Trump’s political operation, but a number of serious candidates other than Trump are expected to enter the race in the coming cycle.
Ronna McDaniel, who was initially handpicked by Trump for the role, was able to cruise to re-election for a fourth term as chair of the Republican National Committee, much of which has been remade under the former president. Trump’s third presidential bid puts the Republican National Committee in the middle of an unprecedented situation: a former president running in a contested major-party primary campaign.
Members at the RNC’s winter meeting were cautious about publicly endorsing Trump, and McDaniel and her lead challenger, Harmeet Dhillon — an RNC committeewoman from California and an attorney whose law firm has represented Trump in recent years — pledged to lead the party in a neutral manner as the primary season heats up, in accordance with RNC bylaws.
Some, however, were sceptical, particularly in light of McDaniel’s re-election.
“If you look at our rules, we can support whoever we want,” Jonathan Barnett, an RNC committeeman from Arkansas who backed Dhillon, said. “The chair isn’t supposed to, but it’s a joke. Because he is the reason she has a job. She may act as if she is neutral, but look at her appearance.”
Needless to say, how the RNC conducts itself in 2024 may have an impact on the primaries. The party is crucial in developing the primary framework, fundraising, and holding debates. According to Dhillon, potential candidates have expressed concerns to her about how the party will function in 2024 with Trump on the ticket.
Dhillon, who has called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis a “likely presidential candidate,” said Friday that she spoke with “a few others, and several of them echoed concerns about the party’s independence and the primary process.”
“I think almost everyone in this room, in the front of the room, in front of the velvet ropes, voted twice for President Trump,” she said. “However, if the party is not perceived as a neutral body and a level playing field for all presidential candidates, our voters will become even more disengaged.”
Trump did not explicitly endorse McDaniel for a fourth term, but his top political advisers were in attendance at the three-day Republican National Convention. The Associated Press reported that one of the advisers, Susie Wiles, privately informed members that Trump still supported McDaniel, while also publicly defending McDaniel from a conservative media report casting a negative light on RNC spending.
In any case, some members expressed confidence that the RNC would conduct the upcoming primaries impartially. The New Jersey GOP chairman, Bob Hugin, said he didn’t see it as “that big an issue” in the race for chair because the candidates “have made it a big deal.”
“You can’t bring people together and be an honest party as the chair of a state party if you’re not neutral,” said Hugin, who said he was undecided in his vote for chair when he spoke with NBC News on Thursday.
Meanwhile, McDaniel supporters have expressed confidence that she will preside over a fair process.
“The RNC is committed to being completely neutral,” said Steve Scheffler, an RNC committeeman from Iowa and the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, who supported McDaniel, adding that the 2024 primary is a “jump ball.”
Interestingly, Trump’s two down-ballot RNC candidates, North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley and Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters, were defeated in their bids for co-chair and treasurer on Friday.
Dhillon told reporters on Thursday that she thought it was “very problematic” for candidates to accept endorsements from presidential candidates or potential candidates while remaining neutral in the party. In the same debate, Dhillon was quick to dismiss DeSantis’s call for party change, which many misinterpreted as an endorsement of Dhillon. She also declined to take a position on Trump’s 2024 bid.
“I think there’s a reality and a perception when a lot of headlines out of here say ‘Trump-installed chairman wins re-election,'” Dhillon said. “That impression is undeniably present. Reality is formed by perception.
“Ronna has addressed that by stating that we will have a strict code of conduct,” she added. “I don’t know that a code of conduct under the current circumstances is going to fix the perception issue. But that’s not my responsibility. I’m now a humble member of the 168.”
The RNC pledged to stop covering Trump’s legal bills in New York only a few days before he announced his third presidential bid. And its debate committee is led by a close Trump ally, Maryland committeeman David Bossie.
Perhaps more importantly in terms of the 2024 primaries is whether states regain control over their delegate allocation processes. During the 2020 campaign, Trump’s team collaborated with state parties to make it more difficult for his opponents to influence delegate selection.
According to The New York Times, his political advisers worked for months to tighten the rules in order to avoid the kind of dissent he faced at the 2016 convention. At the time, more than a dozen states and territories changed their rules to make any split at the nominating convention nearly impossible.
Bill Palatucci, an RNC committeeman from New Jersey who backed Dhillon, said McDaniel’s neutrality was one of his main concerns, adding that it “disqualifies Ronna.”
“Her actions speak louder than words,” he explained. “She has claimed to be objective. She has been anything but that.
“What neutrality means is behind-the-scenes stuff,” he explained further. “For example, can we stop paying Donald Trump’s legal bills in secret? Can we speak out when [Trump] says things about [former Transportation Secretary] Elaine Chao that are racist? That is exactly what a true leader would do. That’s what I mean by being truly neutral.”
Oscar Brock, an RNC committeeman from Tennessee who backed Dhillon, expressed similar concerns but stated that members will play a critical role in ensuring neutrality.
“She has to have a certain loyalty to him,” Brock said of McDaniel. “Do I believe she can run a fair and impartial primary? I certainly hope so. We’ll make certain she does.”