California Republican hopes to oust the GOP's national leader

Harmeet Dhillon covers her hair as she conducts the invocation during the second day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
California attorney Harmeet Dhillon, shown delivering a Sikh invocation during the 2016 Republican National Convention, is challenging the party's national leader in an election this week. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles)
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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. They have both pledged to remain neutral in the 2024 GOP presidential primary if elected.

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. Henry Barbour declined to say who he will vote for in the contest. “If we at the RNC can’t come together, how can we expect voters to come together?"

A surprise victory by Dhillon also 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. ... The RNC chairman’s race is very inside baseball. 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.”

But the task ahead for the next RNC chair, who will lead the party during the 2024 presidential election, will not be an easy one. 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 Congress last year, when most analysts predicted a red wave.

Dhillon said these losses, as well as McDaniel’s decision to seek an unprecedented fourth term, prompted her bid to lead the party. To help rebound, the Republican 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 and 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 persecution of Sikhs in India, which then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) had spoken out against. Dhillon's parents hosted fundraisers for Helms.

After graduating from law school, Dhillon eventually settled in San Francisco. She became active in Bay Area politics after hosting debate watch parties for 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 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 pandemic. She frequently appears on conservative media and her law firm has filed lawsuits over conservative rights on college campuses, COVID restrictions and other causes dear to Republican voters. Earlier this month, a nonprofit she founded sued a California school district over 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 and vocal supporter of the developer turned reality-television star.

Her tactics have been criticized, particularly her work on behalf of election deniers such as Trump. Her law firm represented the former president during the congressional hearings over the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. In the aftermath of the 2022 FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago, Dhillon called the leadership of the federal law enforcement agency "thoroughly corrupt" and said the FBI and 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 represented failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, an election denier who may appear on Dhillon's behalf at this week's meeting.

Dhillon also helped raise money for Trump's legal efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, telling her followers on Twitter to "STOP THE STEAL" and encouraging them to chip in to Trump's election defense fund. Dhillon recently said the tweet was part of a coordinated campaign by the RNC.

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 Water Cooler” podcast. “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, including 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 on Thursday. She said she was urged by a McDaniel ally not to support Dhillon because of her religion. “This can't be who we are as a Party,” she wrote.

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 Dhillon 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 of Romney once she became RNC chair, reportedly because Trump asked her to, according to the Washington Post. Trump and Sen. Mitt Romney are fiercely critical of one another, with Romney assailing Trump's character and Trump labeling Romney a loser.

McDaniel released a list of more than 100 committee members who support her, backing that should guarantee her reelection. The contest will be decided by a majority vote of the 168 members of the RNC. Dhillon declined to say how many committee members back her bid.

Among McDaniel’s supporters is Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann, who praised her support of keeping his state’s caucus the first Republican presidential voting contest in the nation in 2024 and pushed back at criticism of McDaniel 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. “Everyone wanted to be like Iowa and Ohio and have their red wave. It didn’t happen.”

Dhillon’s fellow California RNC members — state party Chair Jessica Millan Patterson and Shawn Steel, the husband of Orange County Republican Rep. Michelle Steel — are also backing McDaniel. Neither responded to requests for comment.

My Pillow 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 at the Waldorf Astoria this week. A private candidate forum is scheduled Wednesday evening, while the chair vote is expected to take place on Friday.

The vote is cast by secret ballot, noted Nehring.

“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.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.