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The GOP Establishment Is Clinging to the Base Harder Than Ever
An RNC Chair challenger makes a pitch to ‘Never Trumpers.’
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The next chair of the Republican National Committee will be decided by the end of this week, and the fraught election is proving to be yet another milestone on the GOP’s rightward path to the land of the Trump-loving base. There are few viable options for the position: current RNC chair Ronna McDaniel wants the job again, Republican lawyer Harmeet Dhillon is the other clear frontrunner, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell will make a lot of noise but end up an also-ran.
On Sunday, Politico ran a headline about the Dhillon operation that made zero sense to me: “RNC Challenger looks to Never Trumpers for a boost.” The pitch from Dhillon’s camp, as Politico puts it, is that she would be a more objective party leader than McDaniel, who Dhillon argues is too close to former President Trump to be able to preside neutrally over the party’s upcoming 2024 primary. Never mind that Trump-related groups have steered more than $400,000 to the Dhillon Law Group, while the RNC has paid her firm more than $1.3 million over the last four years.
Their headline notwithstanding, Politico did not cite any actual “never Trumpers” in the piece. They did interview New Jersey Republican committeeman and Dhillon backer Bill Palatucci, who was framed as a “Trump skeptic.”
But Palatucci’s opposition to Trump is a fairly recent development. Palatucci, a close confidant of Chris Christie, whipped party members against a potential revolt from Trump opponents at the 2016 national convention, and he then served as general counsel to the Trump presidential transition.
His pivot away from the former president appears to have started because of January 6th. That makes his support for Dhillon all the more odd: Her firm has been paid handsomely to represent Trump in the course of his insurrection-related legal woes and tangles with the House January 6th Committee.
The other Dhillon backer quoted by Politico, Arkansas Republican committeeman Jonathan Barnett, recently praised Trump’s speech announcing his 2024 candidacy (even if he did so in terms you might use to praise a child: “He believes Trump stayed on topic, and talked about issues that Americans care about”). Explaining why there was little appetite among Arkansas GOPers for combating party extremists, he also told an op-ed writer there “aren’t many ‘Never Trumpers’ in the Natural State.”
The idea that Never Trumpers ought to flock to Dhillon—or anyone in the RNC chair race—is nonsense. In reality, the Republican party is continuing its inexorable move further right and is clinging to the base harder than ever. A party leadership contest between Dhillon and McDaniel is emblematic of that continuing progression. This becomes even clearer when we take a look elsewhere in the Republican establishment.
The Republican-Led House Is More MAGA than Ever
Kevin McCarthy won the speakership by giving away as much power as he was asked for by the Republican conference’s most conservative hardliners, who routinely coast to re-election in ruby-red districts. He has given a green light to a new, nakedly political subcommittee, promised votes on politically toxic messaging bills, and set up a scenario in which the country will default on its debt later this year unless Democrats agree to significant cuts, which House Republicans are expected to propose come from Social Security and Medicare.
Yesterday, McCarthy moved to place more right-wing hardliners on the powerful House Rules Committee, including Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. And even as he elevates these ideologues in his own party, the new speaker is moving ahead with plans to punish Democratic members who anger his testy—and narrow—majority.
Trump Remains the Sole Republican Presidential Frontrunner for 2024
Recent polling attests to the strength of his starting position. Over the weekend, Morning Consult updated its ongoing survey tracking the opinions of potential GOP primary voters regarding the 2024 Republican primary field. The latest results show Trump leading his closest challenger by almost 20 points. If the vote were held among respondents today, he would receive 49 percent, with Ron Desantis packing away 30 and Mike Pence gleaning just 7. The rest of the potential field remains in the low single digits.
A lot can change over the next year and a half, to be sure, but these numbers are a good reminder that any candidate who wants to challenge Trump for the Republican candidacy in 2024 is going to face an uphill battle on fundraising, coalition building, fighting for air time, and boosting name ID.
The Hard Right Is Mobilizing on Down-Ballot Races
The Republican candidates who became the biggest failures of the midterms—people taken by party elites to be major culprits in the disappointing election cycle—are now gearing up for 2024’s down-ballot races. Kari Lake is reportedly mulling a 2024 Senate run in Arizona. (Before declaring, will she concede her loss in the 2022 gubernatorial election?)
In December I spoke with Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who campaigned alongside Lake during her failed bid for the governorship. He told me that while he thought she was a great candidate, she hasn’t done herself any favors by refusing to concede. In Hawley’s view, another fringe candidate in Arizona did it better:
“I think my friend Blake Masters who also ran—you know Blake suffered from the same issues in terms of votes—I think his posture has been that things that happened there were terrible. It’s gotta get fixed,” he said. “But he conceded his race. . . . I wouldn’t give [Lake] advice, but I’ll just say I think he did the right thing.”
When I caught up with him yesterday, Hawley told me he isn’t pushing Lake or Masters to run again in 2024, saying any decision will be up to them.
Lake is just one example, albeit a high-profile one. But if she decides to run, her candidacy could signal a wave of far-right candidates in down-ballot races. The ground has been prepared for them by people at the top of the GOP pyramid—most importantly, by McCarthy himself. It was to secure his bid for the speakership, after all, that the Super PAC he endorses, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), inked a deal with the Club for Growth, a conservative political organization that boosts far-right candidates, to keep CLF money out of open Republican primaries in safe Republican districts. The upshot is that a major barrier to far-right candidates succeeding in Republican primaries across the country has just come down.
McCarthy may have won his speakership in the end, but doing so required him and other party leaders to ignore the very real lessons of the midterms: that candidate quality can be decisive in competitive races, and extreme policy positions lead to bad outcomes at the ballot box. If things get bad enough, many Republicans may simply refuse to vote for Republican candidates.
These are simple enough lessons to comprehend; voters have reiterated them to the party establishment every time a reliably red state like Arizona or Georgia has tipped into the blue column in recent elections. But no matter how clearly voters have made their preference for reasonable, responsible candidates known, Republican leaders have ignored them. They will continue to do so at their own peril.