DANA POINT, Calif. — The driving debate at this week’s Republican National Committee meeting was a big question: Can the official party apparatus truly be neutral in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries? For years, the NCR has been closely tied to former President Donald Trump’s political operation, but in the next cycle, several serious candidates other than Trump are expected to enter the fray.
Neutrality was at the heart of the contested presidential race in which, on Friday, Ronna McDaniel – originally handpicked by Trump for the role – was able to win re-election for a fourth term at the helm of the RNC, much of which is been redone under the former president. Trump’s third bid for the White House places the RNC at the center of a situation unprecedented in modern times: a former president participating in a contested major-party primary.
Members here at the RNC winter meeting have been wary of offering outside support for Trump, and both McDaniel and his main challenger, Harmeet Dhillon — an RNC commission from California and an attorney whose law firm has represented Trump in recent years — they have pledged to lead the party in a neutral manner, according to the RNC bylaws, as the primary season begins to heat up.
But some weren’t so sure that would be the case, particularly with McDaniel’s re-election.
“If you look at our rules, we can individually support whoever we want,” said Jonathan Barnett, an Arkansas RNC committee member who has supported Dhillon. “The chair isn’t supposed to, but, I mean, it’s a joke. Because she has her job thanks to him. She might act like she’s saying she’s neutral, but she looks at the look.
It goes without saying that how the NCR handles itself in 2024 could affect the primaries. The party plays a key role in the creation of the primary framework, fundraising and debates. As Dhillon told reporters this week, potential candidates have expressed concerns to her about how the party might function in 2024 with Trump on the ticket.
Calling Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “a likely presidential candidate,” Dhillon said Friday he spoke “not to him but to a few others, and many of them echoed concerns about party independence and the primary process.” .
“I think almost everyone in this room, in the front of the room, in front of the velvet ropes, voted for President Trump twice,” he said. “But if the party is not perceived as a neutral body and a level playing field for all presidential candidates, that further disengages our voters.”
Trump did not explicitly endorse McDaniel for a fourth term, but his top political advisers were present at the three-day RNC meeting. Ahead of the event, the Associated Press reported that one of those advisers, Susie Wiles, privately briefed members that Trump was still supportive of McDaniel, while Wiles also publicly defended McDaniel from a conservative media report that shed light negative on NCR expenditure.
In any case, some members have expressed confidence that the body will conduct the upcoming primaries in a neutral manner. New Jersey GOP chairman Bob Hugin said he didn’t see it as “a big deal” in the race for president as the candidates “made a big deal.”
“As the chairman of a state party, you can’t bring people together and be an honest party if you’re not neutral,” added Hugin, who said he was indecisive in his vote for the presidency when he spoke to NBC News Thursday.
Meanwhile, McDaniel’s allies have expressed confidence that he will oversee a fair trial.
“The RNC is committed to being totally neutral,” said Steve Scheffler, an Iowa RNC committee member and chairman of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition who backed McDaniel, adding that he sees the 2024 primary race at this point. as “a stepping stone”. .
Interestingly, the two Trump-backed short-ballot RNC candidates — North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley and Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters — lost their bids for co-chairman and treasurer on Friday.
A day earlier, Dhillon had told reporters that he thought it was “very problematic” for candidates to accept endorsements from presidential candidates or potential candidates with the party having to be neutral. In that same discussion, Dhillon was quick to squash comments by DeSantis calling for a change to the party that many interpreted as an endorsement of Dhillon. He also declined to offer his personal position on Trump’s 2024 bid.
“I think when a lot of headlines coming out of here say ‘Trump-to-install president wins re-election,’ I think there’s a reality and there’s a perception,” Dhillon said. “That perception is definitely there. Perception becomes reality.”
“Ronna addressed the issue by saying we will have a strict code of conduct,” she continued. “I don’t know if a code of conduct in the current circumstances will solve the perception problem. But I am not responsible for this. Now I am a humble member of the 168”.
Just before Trump announced his third presidential bid, the RNC pledged to stop covering the former president’s legal costs in New York. And his committee on debates is led by a close Trump ally, Maryland committee member David Bossie.
However, perhaps more noteworthy regarding the 2024 primaries is whether states begin to regain control over their delegate allocation process. In the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign essentially worked with state parties to make it harder for his opponents to influence delegate selection.
As The New York Times reported in 2019, his political advisers engaged in a month-long effort to tighten those rules in order to avoid the kind of dissent he faced at the 2016 convention. At the time, more than three dozens of states and territories have changed their rules to make any division at the naming convention nearly impossible.
Bill Palatucci, a New Jersey RNC committee member who backed Dhillon, said neutrality was one of his biggest concerns with McDaniel, adding that it was what “disqualifies Ronna.”
“His actions speak louder than words,” he said. “He claimed to be neutral; she was anything but.
“What neutrality means, it’s behind-the-scenes stuff,” he continued. “Like, can we stop secretly paying Donald Trump’s legal fees? We can talk when [Trump] says racist things about [former Transportation Secretary] Elaine Chao? This is what a true leader would do. And that’s what I mean by being truly neutral.
Oscar Brock, a Tennessee RNC committee member who also supported Dhillon, echoed the concerns but said members would play a key role in ensuring neutrality.
“You have to know that he has a certain loyalty to him,” Brock said of McDaniel. “Do I think he can run a fair and impartial primary? I hope so. We’ll make him do it.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com