Inside Republican Party, pressure to change course, leadership after midterm losses

The Republican National Committee's identity is tested amid a GOP reckoning.

December 9, 2022, 2:00 PM

The GOP's broader reckoning over former President Donald Trump and a dispiriting midterm cycle has ignited a firestorm at a Republican National Committee gearing up for a fierce race for its chairmanship and a possibly hostile presidential primary.

Sitting RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel is running for reelection with broad support among the RNC's 168 members, but frustration over the midterms has already sparked a committee to examine party mechanics and could net her a handful of challengers. The RNC will also be put to the test in the 2024 primary, with its bylaws mandating neutrality as possibly over a dozen candidates run, including former President Donald Trump, with whom the group has close ties.

Taken together, Republicans say they're in a moment of introspection to try to ensure victory in two years.

"I do think 'identity crisis' might be a bit too far, but there's certainly a lot of soul searching going on about the future and the role of the party," said RNC member Bill Palatucci.

Lamentations over the midterms, which saw Republicans only narrowly flip the House and fail to take the Senate despite sky-high expectations, are manifesting into a review chaired by RNC members Henry Barbour of Mississippi and Harmeet Dhillon of California, who both have extensive ties throughout the committee and broader party. The two are being tasked with examining party mechanics during the 2022 cycle.

Separately, the RNC is forming an advisory panel "to inform the Republican Party’s 2024 vision and beyond," according to a press release. Members of the panel, which include onetime Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, Sen.-elect Katie Britt, R-Ala., and failed Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, will meet with McDaniel "regularly."

PHOTO: Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel speaks during a campaign rally for Georgia Republican senate candidate Herschel Walker on December 5, 2022 in Kennesaw, Georgia.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel speaks during a campaign rally for Georgia Republican senate candidate Herschel Walker on December 5, 2022 in Kennesaw, Georgia.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Leadership challenge

Over a half-dozen RNC members who spoke with ABC News had an array of explanations over why Republicans fell short of expectations last month, but all expressed a desire to change course after three consecutive cycles of losses.

"We are determined to have a brutally honest review. We need to figure out what worked, what didn’t, and the best path forward to winning big in '24," Barbour said. "Losing is unacceptable."

The midterm fallout is coming to a head in the chair's race, with McDaniel running for a fourth term. Already, she's garnered challenges from Dhillon and My Pillow CEO and election denier Mike Lindell. Rep. Lee Zeldin, N.Y., who narrowly lost is New York gubernatorial bid, was seriously considering a challenge to McDaniel before announcing Wednesday he would not run.

McDaniel enters the race as the favorite, touting her support from 108 members -- far more than the 85 she'd need to win at next month's RNC winter meeting.

She also has backup from former RNC Chair and Trump White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and David Bossie, an influential RNC member from Maryland who is close with the former president. Both sent letters in recent weeks boosting McDaniel, which were obtained by ABC News.

PHOTO: FILE - Attorney Harmeet Dhillon California's national committeewoman for the Republican National Committee poses for a photograph at her office in San Francisco, Calif., Sept. 20, 2017.
Attorney Harmeet Dhillon California's national committeewoman for the Republican National Committee poses for a photograph at her office in San Francisco, Calif., Sept. 20, 2017.
Medianews Group/bay Area News Vi/MediaNews Group via Getty Images, FILE

"She's likely to be reelected, but she will probably face her first opponent after serving six years as RNC chair," one RNC member, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal affairs, said before Dhillon launched her bid. "There is some discontentment on the committee because we have lost more than we’ve won since she took the helm" in 2017.

That dissatisfaction is at the heart of Dhillon's challenge, with her and others pushing for a more forceful embrace of mail-in and early voting -- methods of voting McDaniel has also pushed for after the midterms.

"[T]o play off of a famous catchphrase, Republicans are tired of losing. And I think that we really need to radically reshape our leadership in order to win," Dhillon said Monday on Fox News.

Palatucci, who said Zeldin had "a lot to offer" before he declined to run, added that "my sense is that there's a growing chorus for change."

Still, McDaniel supporters said that they anticipate that declared support for her is too high a hurdle for challengers to clear.

"A little competition for chair is not a bad thing," said RNC member Cynthia Henry. "But I think the overwhelming victor will be Ronna."

PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump attends a rally to support Republican candidates ahead of midterm elections, in Dayton, Ohio, November 7, 2022.
Former President Donald Trump attends a rally to support Republican candidates ahead of midterm elections, in Dayton, Ohio, November 7, 2022.
Gaelen Morse/Reuters, FILE

Dealing with the Trump factor

Beyond the speakership, the RNC is also expected to grapple with Trump's presence on the campaign trail for possibly the next two years.

RNC bylaws mandate that it cannot take sides in the primary, which would mark a pivot for a group closely aligned with the former president in recent years. The RNC has paid Trump's legal fees and featured him prominently in fundraising appeals. McDaniel also won Trump's endorsement in her past chairmanship bids.

The RNC has already ceased paying some of Trump's legal fees, and members forecasted that a crowded field would make it easier for it to stay out of the primary.

Still, one RNC member supporting McDaniel said she has taken the appropriate steps so far but "There's not enough runway behind her yet to really prove that neutrality."

Trump's presence in the primary is already putting RNC leadership in a precarious position.

Since Trump launched his third presidential campaign, he's dined with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and antisemitic rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and called for the termination of the Constitution over complaints regarding the 2020 election, sparking a stir among RNC members.

"I am flabbergasted at the lack of outrage from Ronna about this," RNC member Oscar Brock said in an email exchange with other members that was reviewed by ABC News. "We must, as a party, oppose all racism and prejudice, and condemn those who accept and endorse it, which includes inviting neo-nazi's [sic] to dinner."

Brock did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for McDaniel pointed to past statements the chairwoman made.

After the email exchange, McDaniel said in a statement that "white supremacy, neo-Nazism, hate speech and bigotry are disgusting and do not have a home in the Republican Party." She also tweeted that "I completely condemn them and anti-Semitism in all of its forms. There is no place for Kanye, Fuentes, or their views inside the Republican Party."

PHOTO: FILE - Republican Party logo and American flag are displayed
Republican Party logo and American flag are displayed
NurPhoto via Getty Images, FILE

"People are pretty strong and pretty passionate about their position one way or another, and it'll be really hard to convince anybody to change their opinion," the RNC member supporting McDaniel said of Trump, though the person said they are "starting to see a crack in even those individuals that had bled for Trump."

While Trump's role in the party is a key part of the GOP's debate over its future, some RNC members warned against forfeiting enthusiasm generated by the former president's backers, even though many of Trump's favored candidates lost last month.

"I think it's very clear looking at these election results, that there's two choices for the party," another RNC member said. "One is to go back to our foundation and the values that we were counting on. Or two is to move more central and more moderate. And I think moving moderate would be a mistake, especially with the trends we see in an unexcited base and turnout."

Overall, among the midterms, the chair's race and Trump, the GOP is in for significant introspection -- which many RNC members welcome.

"I think any party that’s not constantly soul searching is a party that’s going to get stagnant -- and that’s a dangerous place to be," another RNC member supporting McDaniel said.

"So, you better be soul searching," the person added, "or you're gonna lose."

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