At RNC Meeting, Trump Questions Fate of Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel

In early 2021, when former President Donald J. Trump was unhappily exiting the White House, he suggested in a private conversation with Ronna McDaniel, the head of the Republican National Committee, the possibility of running for the White House again in 2024, not as a Republican but as a third-party candidate.

Mr. Trump quickly scrapped the idea. Three years later, the rest is nearly history. After his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire last month, Mr. Trump is on the precipice of again becoming the Republican Party’s official standard-bearer.

Despite a sometimes fraught history — most party insiders were leery of Mr. Trump when he first won the Republican nomination in 2016 — the former president and his party are now largely aligned, a sign of how much Republicanism has transformed in the last eight years.

As members of the Republican National Committee gathered in Las Vegas this week for their winter meeting, the looming remarriage of the party apparatus with Mr. Trump generated only the smallest pockets of resistance. Instead, much of the drama and discussion on the sidelines was about how Mr. Trump would seek to put his imprint on the party’s leadership.

Would it be a wholesale takeover? What would be Ms. McDaniel’s fate? And what would it all mean for the party’s strained finances?

One of the central questions on the sidelines of the Las Vegas gathering was if Ms. McDaniel, still the party chairwoman, would stay through the election, when her term ends. Mr. Trump first appointed Ms. McDaniel in 2016 and has long worked closely and directly with her. In private, however, the former president has begun to question the R.N.C.’s direction under her leadership, according to a person who has heard his remarks. For her part, Ms. McDaniel has indicated she would step aside if the Republican nominee prefers.

The night that Mr. Trump won New Hampshire, Ms. McDaniel went on national television to declare that Mr. Trump would be the “eventual” nominee and that it was important to unite behind him. Ms. McDaniel’s remark irked some of the party’s more institutionalist voices, though even supporters of Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s lone major remaining rival, acknowledged that her path to the nomination was perilously steep.

Soon after New Hampshire, one of Ms. McDaniel’s top aides traveled to Palm Beach to meet with the Trump team’s leadership as part of talks on how an integration might unfold. Plans are already underway to create a joint fund-raising operation, and a temporary nominee fund without Mr. Trump’s name attached to it has already been created. And Mr. Trump in recent days has signed two grass-roots emails that aim to engage supporters and raise money for the R.N.C.

Among the names that have been more widely discussed as a chairman to lead a potential post-McDaniel party is Michael Whatley, the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party and the R.N.C.’s general counsel. But Mr. Trump or any nominee could suggest anyone, though the final choice would need to be ratified by the committee’s 168 members. Drew McKissick, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, serves as a party co-chairman with Ms. McDaniel.

Ms. McDaniel, who won re-election in a landslide in early 2023, remains popular among the members of the R.N.C. “I have every reason to believe that Ronna will be the chair until the end of her term,” said Richard Porter, the national committeeman from Illinois who oversees the party’s resolutions committee.

In 2016, Mr. Trump’s inexperienced team leaned heavily on the R.N.C. and did not replace its leadership. For the 2020 campaign, Mr. Trump’s team held the White House and worked closely with the party from the start. In 2024, if and when Mr. Trump becomes the presumptive nominee, his team could dispatch one or more top officials to functionally take over party operations in addition to — or in lieu of — replacing the chair.

A spokesman for Mr. Trump declined to comment. An R.N.C. spokeswoman also declined to comment.

Just as committee members were meeting at the smoky Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas, the party had to reveal the bleak state of its finances in a report to the Federal Election Commission. It showed the Republican National Committee in its weakest cash position in years — only $8 million cash on hand, with $1.8 million in debts.

Behind closed doors, the party’s executive committee had authorized a line of credit to potentially draw upon — a common practice but one seen as more urgent given the cash situation — as party officials drafted an austere budget for the year to come. The total revenue projected in the document, according to several people who saw it, was just under $200 million — a fraction of what was raised in 2020. A party official noted, however, that the document did not include any projections of what would be raised in concert with the eventual nominee, which is expected to be substantial.

“It has been very challenging for the Republican Party at the national level to raise money,” said Steven Frias, a national committeeman from Rhode Island.

“Some people believe with Trump becoming the nominee it’s going to solve a lot of our problems,” said Mr. Frias, who supports Ms. Haley. “But I think there is also a counterpoint to that, which is: Once Trump becomes the nominee, there’s a whole bunch of people who used to give to the party who will say, ‘I’m not giving to the party.’”

Ms. McDaniel made her case to members that the financial challenges were spread across the entire G.O.P. ecosystem, as the party announced publicly that January 2024 was a stronger month by $2 million than any month in 2023.

“Raise your hand if you had a great fund-raising year last year,” Ms. McDaniel said to members at a closed-door breakfast, according to two people who were present. Only one person raised a hand.

Still, the weak cash report gave fresh fodder to Ms. McDaniel’s critics. Some groups on the right have loudly pushed for Ms. McDaniel’s ouster and have even sought to win seats inside the committee for leverage over the party’s direction.

“This is one of the worst years that we’ve ever seen,” said Tyler Bowyer, the Republican committeeman from Arizona, who has been a McDaniel critic. “Given the financial circumstances that the Republican Party is in, top to bottom, having the Trump campaign lead on the front of that merger makes a ton of sense.”

Mr. Bowyer is also the chief operating officer of Turning Point Action, a group that organized its own conference in Las Vegas ahead of the official R.N.C. meeting — and called it the Restoring National Confidence summit — or R.N.C., for short.

The counter-event and the criticism lobbed at Ms. McDaniel have chafed some inside the committee.

“That’s a concern for me when your friends don’t help build you up and then question why you’re being torn down,” said Tamara Scott, the G.O.P. committeewoman from Iowa.

Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point, who has supported removing Ms. McDaniel, said he was looking for entirely new leadership who could “change the deep state of the R.N.C.,” floating names of Trump family members like Donald Trump Jr. or even a failed 2024 candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy.

“The grass-roots donors have completely dried up — they don’t want to support the R.N.C.,” Mr. Kirk said, arguing that new leadership would inspire new donors.

Some have pressed to align the party more fully with Mr. Trump while the 2024 Republican primary is still ongoing.

Last week, a Trump ally, David Bossie, the G.O.P. committeeman from Maryland and Mr. Trump’s 2016 deputy campaign manager, circulated a resolution to declare Mr. Trump the “presumptive nominee,” but it was quickly withdrawn after Mr. Trump himself said in a social-media post he did not want to see it proceed.

“I feel, for the sake of PARTY UNITY, that they should NOT go forward with this plan,” Mr. Trump wrote.

Oscar Brock, the Republican committeeman from Tennessee, who has been a Trump critic, said he had complained to Ms. McDaniel about her decision to declare Mr. Trump the “eventual” nominee — “she acknowledged I had a right to be frustrated,” he said — but even he still understood the daunting math ahead for Ms. Haley.

“Ironically, we politicians are having to listen to the voters,” Mr. Brock said. “Which is the way it should be.”

Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.

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