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A dramatic political battle for the RNC's next chair culminates this week

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to a political battle playing out at a five-star hotel on the California coast. That is where all 168 members of the Republican National Committee have come together to vote on who will be the next RNC chair. The race has been dramatic - two top contenders, both endorsed by former President Trump. Given the poor performance of a lot of Trump-backed candidates in last year's midterms, though, there is vitriol and concern over where party leadership goes from here. Well, Rachael Bade is in the thick of it. She is Politico's senior Washington correspondent and is covering the RNC meeting from Orange County, Calif. Hey there, Rachael.

RACHAEL BADE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, let's set the table. You have billed tomorrow's vote as the biggest moment yet in the 2024 election cycle. And I'll just set us up. Its current RNC chair, Ronna McDaniel - she's trying to win a fourth term. But her top challenger - this is California attorney Harmeet Dhillon - is not going down without a fight. So I want you to briefly introduce us to what we need to know about both of them in the context of this race. Start with Ronna McDaniel.

BADE: So Ronna's considered the favorite right now. Right after the midterm, she put out a list of a hundred names of the RNC members who backed her, saying, look. I have this lined up. I'm able to get this fourth term, even though she promised she would leave after three terms. But this race has really turned contentious because of two reasons. So the first one is, of course, as you mentioned, Republicans having this terrible midterm performance. A lot of people are blaming her. Her take on this is that the work she did at the RNC, she's arguing, made it so the election wasn't as bad as it could have been. The second one is this concern about her being too tied to Donald Trump. He was the one who put her in the job in the first place. And so some people want to put some distance between them.

KELLY: OK. Trump has also endorsed her top opponent, Harmeet Dhillon. What should we know about her?

BADE: Yeah. So as you mentioned, she's an attorney. She's a Fox News favorite, on all the time. And she's basically blamed Ronna for these election losses, saying that Republicans aren't doing everything they can to turn out the votes. But you pointed out there's this inherent sort of contradiction here, and that is she's also very close with Trump. She represented him before the January 6 committee and has represented him on other legal issues. She's also surrounded herself with these sort of MAGA hardliners. So, you know, she's trying to say that she can distance herself from Trump, but at the same time, her top allies are some of his most, you know, true believer, hardcore people. So it's a bizarre dynamic.

KELLY: And tell me the mood just as you walk around this hotel. How contentious has this back-and-forth gotten?

BADE: Yeah, I mean, it's gotten pretty ugly. I will say, I mean, it's not like I've seen any fights happening here in the lobbies. You know, the members will come out, and they talk to reporters. We're not actually allowed backstage where they're doing sort of all these debates. But a lot of the contention actually has been happening sort of behind the scenes, sort of these whisper campaigns, as you may say.

So people are talking about some of the staffers that Harmeet Dhillon wants to hire who have a lot of scandal in their past. But then at the other end, you know, Harmeet Dhillon has alleged that Ronna McDaniel and her camp have tried to say she can't run the RNC because she comes from the Sikh religion. She's not a Christian. And so Ronna has pushed back and said, I would never do that as a Mormon. You know, I've dealt with religious bigotry. I definitely had nothing to do with that. We'll have to see if, you know, Harmeet Dhillon is actually able to sort of capitalize on some of this. Her allies are telling me that they think they're only within 10 votes of actually defeating Ronna McDaniel.

KELLY: Yeah. So the voters tomorrow - ultimately, how big an impact will this vote have on the 2024 election? Like, how much does it matter who is the RNC chair?

BADE: Well, I think the ironic thing about all of this is these two women - things are very contentious right now. But like we said, they're both close to Trump. And the big question right now everybody seems to be asking is, which one can be the most independent? I mean, I think people really want the RNC not to put their thumb on the scale for Donald Trump going into 2024. Republicans here - a lot of them will not say it on the record but privately will say that he's bad for the party and they do not want him to be the nominee. So they want the person in this job to make sure that anyone else who's running gets a fair shake in the primary. And that's a big piece of this question right now - is who's going to do that the best?

KELLY: Rachael Bade of Politico speaking with us from the RNC meeting in Dana Point, Calif. Thank you. Good luck covering it all.

BADE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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