Sarah Huckabee Sanders picked for GOP State of the Union response

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will deliver the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address next week, GOP leaders from both houses of Congress announced Thursday.

Sanders, the youngest governor in the U.S., was elected to the governor’s mansion in Little Rock last November and sworn in early last month. She is the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and spent nearly two years as White House press secretary during the Trump administration.

“I am grateful for this opportunity to address the nation and contrast the GOP’s optimistic vision for the future against the failures of President Biden and the Democrats,” Sanders said in a statement.

The press secretary-turned-governor was a polarizing figure during her tenure behind the White House briefing room podium, from which she sparred often with the Washington press corps as she defended then-President Donald Trump amid his administration’s controversy and scandal.

Sanders herself was eventually caught up in controversy in 2019, when a report released by special counsel Robert Mueller revealed that the press secretary admitted to misleading the reporters during a 2017 briefing where she discussed Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. Sanders said at that briefing that “the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director” and that the Trump White House had heard from “countless members of the FBI” that they had lost confidence in Comey. In its report, Mueller’s team said Sanders conceded that those “comments were not founded on anything.”

Sanders will deliver her address from Little Rock next Tuesday after Biden wraps his speech before a joint session of Congress. In a statement, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said everyone should listen to the address, “including President Biden.”

“She is a servant-leader of true determination and conviction,” McCarthy said. “I’m thrilled Sarah will share her extraordinary story and bold vision for a better America on Tuesday.”

Marty Walsh under consideration for spot atop NHL players’ union

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has been approached about running the NHL Players Association and is in consideration for the gig, in what could be the second major shakeup to the Biden administration in recent weeks.

A person familiar with the discussions said Walsh is a strong contender for the lead role atop the hockey players’ union but that no deal is yet done. The Department of Labor declined to comment.

NHLPA spokesperson Jonathan Weatherdon did not deny Walsh was under consideration in an email to POLITICO. “The Search Committee has been actively interviewing potential candidates and remains engaged in the process of selecting a new NHLPA Executive Director,” he said. “While the process is getting closer to completion, we are unable to comment further at this time.”

Should Walsh take the gig, he would be the second member of the president’s Cabinet to depart the Biden administration following Eric Lander, who resigned as Biden’s top science adviser in February 2022 after POLITICO first reported allegations that he bullied subordinates at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Biden had elevated that post to Cabinet level, making Walsh the first traditional Cabinet official to potentially exit.

A Walsh departure would also possibly come amid other major administration staff shake ups. Chief of staff Ron Klain is set to hand off duties to Jeff Zients, marking the start of a new chapter for a White House still buoyed by better-than-expected midterm results for Democrats but now forced to tangle with a Republican controlled House.

Walsh’s name had been loosely discussed as a possible successor to Klain, though the labor secretary maintains his residence in Massachusetts and stays in a hotel when he’s in D.C.

The former Boston mayor has also been regularly talked about as a future candidate for office in Massachusetts, though his electoral options back home appear limited for the near future. He passed on running for the state’s open governor’s seat last year, unwilling to get involved in a primary against Democrats’ heir apparent, now-Gov. Maura Healey. And Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have both pledged to seek reelection to their Senate seats in 2024 and 2026, respectively.

Going to the NHLPA would, instead, mark a return to organized labor for Walsh, who previously headed up the Building and Construction Trades Council in Boston before entering electoral politics and becoming the city’s mayor in 2014.

As Labor secretary Walsh frequently served as a key surrogate for the Biden administration, particularly as a go-between with unions and the business community. That included keeping tabs on the ongoing impasse between dockworkers and West Coast port operators as well as stepping into last year’s Major League Baseball lockout.

Biden tapped Walsh to lead DOL in part due to his ties to the labor movement, as well as their personal bond: in public appearances Biden often ribs Walsh for his unvarnished Boston accent.

The White House credited Walsh for his work overseeing negotiations last year that threatened to halt the nation’s freight rail system. However, several of the unions involved in those discussions later rejected their tentative agreements, leading Biden in December to seek Congress’ help and impose contract terms on the industry to keep the system online.

In his first months as secretary, Walsh also visited striking Kellogg’s workers on a picket line in Pennsylvania, drawing howls from Republicans that it was an inappropriate use of his office.

The Labor Department’s inspector general looked into the Kellogg’s visit and some of Walsh’s other interactions with unions and did not find ethical violations, though House Education and Workforce Chair Virginia Foxx has vowed to continue probing the matter.

Apart from his record on labor disputes, Walsh also oversaw a number of regulatory changes at DOL aimed at unwinding Trump-era policies.

That includes a just-finalized rule allowing retirement planners greater flexibility to factor ESG-metrics in their investment decisions, overseeing the Biden administration’s attempt to impose a vaccination-or-test mandate — much of which was blocked by the Supreme Court — and other Covid-era measures.

Close associates of Walsh appeared to be in the dark about the NHLPA talks as word spread Wednesday afternoon. But at least one wasn’t surprised by the potential development, given his history with labor relations and his love of hockey.

Walsh is a lifelong Boston Bruins fan. But he also has a darker history tied to the sport. Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, has spoken openly of being thrown out of a Bruins game in the 1990s for being too drunk, part of a series of events that led him to seek help for his addiction.

If Walsh did take the players’ association gig, the former Boston mayor would follow his close friend, former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker into the sports-executive world. Baker takes over as president of the NCAA in March.

Eleanor Mueller and Sam Stein contributed reporting.

Ronna McDaniel wins RNC chair race that grew very messy by the end

DANA POINT, Calif. — Ronna McDaniel will serve a rare fourth term as chair of the Republican National Committee, emerging victorious in a contentious bid for reelection.

McDaniel on Friday defeated her main challenger, the RNC’s California national committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon, by a vote of 111 committee members to 51. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, whose campaign drew little support, received four votes.

The at times fierce, two-month-long race sparked debates about how the RNC has managed its finances and fared in recent elections. It also saw some members — on both sides of the contest — publicly calling into question the character of their colleagues, putting McDaniel and her allies on the defensive and forcing the incumbent chair to assemble an aggressive whip operation to shore up her support.

“We need all of us,” McDaniel told committee members after calling Dhillon and Lindell to join her onstage. “We heard you, grassroots. We know. We heard Harmeet; we heard Mike Lindell… [W]ith us united and all of us joining together, the Democrats are going to hear us in 2024.”

Speaking to a swarm of reporters after the vote, Dhillon said she is committed to working toward repairing fractures in the party, but that party unity won’t come overnight.

“We did not expect this to become a national grassroots movement,” she said. “So I’m committed to healing and coming together with folks, but at the end of the day, if our party is perceived as totally out of touch with the grassroots — which I think some may take away from this outcome — we have some work to do.”

The committee meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach, a luxury seaside resort, illustrated the tense division within the Republican ranks that continue to exist months after the 2022 elections.

Dhillon, whose firm represents former President Donald Trump, raised her profile over the last year with regular appearances on Fox News’ evening programs — garnering support in her bid for chair from a prominent cast of conservative commentators. That list included Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Charlie Kirk, who helped mobilize an army of grassroots activists to call and email RNC committee members, urging them to oppose McDaniel’s reelection. But those high-profile figures were not always a value add.

On multiple occasions, on-the-fence members told Dhillon and her allies that they would be open to supporting her if Kirk weren’t one of her surrogates, said Oscar Brock, the national committeeman from Tennessee who was part of her team. Dhillon had assured concerned members that Kirk, a firebrand conservative figure, wouldn’t be part of RNC staff, should she win. But there was never a conversation among her whip team about asking Kirk to dial down his support.

“There probably should have been,” Brock said. “But there wasn’t.”

In an interview Friday, Kirk called McDaniel’s victory “a direct insult to the grassroots people that they send 10 emails a day to, begging for money.”

“I think the RNC is going to have a lot of trouble raising small-dollar donations, a lot of trouble rebuilding trust,” Kirk said. “Going into 2024, the apparatus that should be a machine and clicking on all cylinders and firing on all cylinders is going to be in a trust deficit.”

Kirk wasn’t the only Dhillon ally whose aggressive advocacy ended up turning off members of the committee. Caroline Wren, who most recently ran Kari Lake’s gubernatorial campaign in Arizona, got into a heated exchange with Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones on Thursday night in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria.

According to three people familiar with the confrontation, Wren, who has been Dhillon’s top adviser in her campaign for chair, told Jones: “Everyone knows you’re here fucking whipping votes for Ronna.” She proceeded to call him a “fucking sell out,” adding that, “the grassroots will never support you again.”

A person familiar with the conversation said Wren had also approached Jones two other times this week, once while he was speaking with an RNC member, during which she called him “the fucking enemy,” and another time as Jones was speaking with Lake, during which she called him a “sellout.”

Wren confirmed she was frustrated with Jones because he had previously been a public supporter of Dhillon. But she downplayed the tenor of Thursday night’s conversation, saying she did not use profanity and adding that she even laughed at one point. Asked Friday about the encounter, Jones smiled and shrugged, saying “there’s not much more to say.”

In addition to relying on prominent conservative figures, Dhillon’s whip team also held calls once or twice weekly, said Brock. But several committee members in recent days said that calls and emails from Dhillon’s team had become too much, eventually solidifying their support for McDaniel.

“I think Harmeet could have taken a different approach and said, ‘The RNC, it isn’t where we want to be. And here’s what it will be like when I become chair,’ without, you know, calling into question the motives of all the people that are a part of the organization,” said Paul Dame, the Vermont Republican Party chair who joined the committee in fall 2021. After remaining undecided for much of the chair race, Dame put his support behind McDaniel this week.

Dhillon drew a last-minute nod of support from Ron DeSantis on Thursday, though it’s unclear whether it swayed any votes. The Florida governor’s decision to weigh in on the race stood in contrast to Trump.

Despite choosing McDaniel as his RNC chair after his 2016 victory, the former president publicly stayed out of this year’s contest, though Dhillon said he sent her a text message through one of his advisers on Wednesday. In the text, Trump joked about disliking one of her endorsers (she declined to say who). Prior to that message, Dhillon hadn’t spoken with the former president since shortly after she announced her chair bid. She said that when she told Trump she was running, he remarked that McDaniel had also announced a campaign.

“He said, ‘OK, well, that’ll be interesting,’” Dhillon recalled. “‘Good luck.’”

Despite calling for wholesale reforms to the party moving forward, Dhillon declined on Friday to answer whether she supports Republicans moving on from Trump in 2024, saying it was inappropriate for an RNC committee member to influence voters in the primary process.

While Trump stayed mum, his top aides were privately supporting McDaniel’s reelection bid — though advisers Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles disputed the notion that they were whipping votes for her while meeting with members at the Waldorf Astoria in recent days.

Ultimately, McDaniel’s team, with the help of allies, convinced members that a fourth term was earned even after the lackluster midterms. It left Dhillon’s supporters exasperated.

“Ya got me,” said Bill Palatucci, the national committee member from New Jersey, about why his colleagues on the committee overwhelmingly backed McDaniel, despite multiple cycles of GOP disappointments. “That has been my speech to these people on email and via phone calls and meetings here. We just had this terrible midterm cycle, and you guys don’t want to make a change? For whatever reason, they have their heads buried in the sand.”

McDaniel’s bid for a fourth term was a fight before it officially started.

Former Rep. Lee Zeldin, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in New York whose race drew national attention for being closer than expected, floated his name for RNC chair shortly after the midterms. (He received one write-in vote on Friday.) And Palatucci — upset by what he described as McDaniel’s brief “disaster” of a call with RNC members on Nov. 9 — emailed top RNC staff and some members his concerns. In the note, he wrote that McDaniel’s remarks “showed incredible unwillingness to face the reality of what happened last evening,” adding that he and other members “want a real, honest assessment of what happened.”

When she formally announced her bid on Nov. 14, McDaniel held a lengthy call with members — taking questions and making her case for why she should continue in the role. McDaniel had previously told members in 2021 she would not seek another term after her third.

By the end of the week, McDaniel had assembled a list of more than 100 members publicly supporting her. Just after Thanksgiving, she announced she was launching a “Republican Party Advisory Council” to “review” the party’s electoral performance in 2022.

Last week, McDaniel sent members a document she called her “Vision for Unity,” which included plans to improve Republicans’ “legal ballot collecting” efforts, find new tactics for small-dollar fundraising that has suffered in recent years, and boosting the youth vote. In the document, first reported by POLITICO, McDaniel made an appeal to members who were inclined to support Dhillon, saying she would work with Dhillon and Lindell over the next two years in an effort to unite all corners of the GOP.

“I look forward to uniting once again as a Party and working together, alongside Harmeet and Mike, to heal as a Party and elect Republicans,” McDaniel wrote.

The event at the Waldorf Astoria drew an assortment of Republican officials, from Lake and Jones to former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a likely 2024 presidential contender who could be seen meeting with reporters in the hotel lobby on Wednesday and Thursday. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — another presidential hopeful, though he did not attend the meeting — left stacks of his new book on a check-in table for attendees.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made an appearance Friday morning, posing for photos with attendees before an RNC security guard at one point asked to see her credential lanyard.

Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

Behind the RNC’s anti-Trump revolt

After losing both chambers of Congress during Trump’s presidency and after waging a disappointing campaign to recapture them in 2022, the Republican Party is having a lot of intra-party feuds.

This week, the post-election search for new leadership moved to the Republican National Committee. Right now, there’s no agreed-upon leader of the party, so like the recent battles in the Senate and the House, the RNC election has turned into a fight to define the GOP’s future.

And once again, Donald Trump is at the center of the debate.

Playbook co-author Rachael Bade flew to Orange County, California, to watch the fireworks at the RNC’s winter meeting, where the three-time incumbent chair Ronna McDaniel faced a challenge from conservative lawyer Harmeet Dhillon.

To understand what this fight is all about, Rachael had breakfast with Bill Palatucci, a longtime party member who is also a close ally of Chris Christie’s and a loud critic of Donald Trump.

In this week’s episode, Palatucci explains how the Dhillon-McDaniel contest isn’t just about the RNC chairmanship – it’s about who will lead the Republican Party into 2024 — and beyond — and why the GOP could languish for a very long time depending on the outcome.

Trump unveils new education policy loaded with culture war proposals

Former President Donald Trump is unveiling a 2024 education policy plan, one focusing heavily on the culture war components that have animated conservatives.

The plan, shared in advance with POLITICO, calls for cutting federal funding for any school or program that includes “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content onto our children.” It also calls for opening “civil rights investigations into any school district that has engaged in race-based discrimination,” particularly against Asian American students, and promises to “keep men out of women’s sports.”

The proposals are not focused solely on social policy and school curriculum. In a video unveiling the plan, which was shared by his campaign, Trump also calls for making significant cuts to administrative personnel and the end of teacher tenure and the election of school principals.

“As the saying goes, personnel is policy and at the end of the day if we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids we have a major problem,” Trump said. “We’re at the end of the list on education and yet we spend the most, but we’re going to be tops in education no matter where you go anywhere in the world.”

Though large swaths of education policy are dictated by state and local governments, Trump’s proposals still represent a radical departure from long-standing approaches. Taken in full, they represent an attempt by the former president to put his own imprint on debates around the nation’s school systems that have popped up across state capitals.

Conservatives, for example, have pushed for restrictions on transgender athletes, even though transgender women have been allowed to compete in women’s categories in the Olympics since 2003 and the NCAA since 2010.

Just days ago, meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) — a potential 2024 competitor — blocked high schools in his state from teaching an Advanced Placement African American studies curriculum over what he described as the inclusion of topics like “queer theory” and movements that called for “abolishing prisons.”

The White House and education groups, including the College Board, have pushed back aggressively on DeSantis, arguing that he has no basis or credibility to make such determinations. More broadly, school administrators and progressive activists have noted that most public school officials across the country do not teach critical race theory, even in districts where lawmakers are seeking to ban it.

But Trump’s policy proposal underscores how primed Republicans are for these types of fights. During his time in office, the main thrust of Trump’s education platform was not so much on cultural elements as on a desire to expand school choice, including a federal tax credit to help parents pay for private school tuition.

Now running for office again, Trump is calling for a certification program for teachers who “embrace patriotic values” and “funding preferences and favorable treatment” for states and school districts that follow his calls for abolishing teacher tenure. He also calls for cutting administrative roles, and adopting a “parental bill of rights.” Trump said he would also remove “the radical zealots and Marxists” he claims have “infiltrated” the Department of Education.

DeSantis scrambles RNC race after praising Dhillon and urging ‘new blood’

DANA POINT, Calif. — The contentious race for chair of the Republican National Committee just met an unexpected twist: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday calling for “new blood” at the RNC and praising the current challenger to RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, Harmeet Dhillon.

DeSantis weighed in on the race just 24 hours before the RNC’s 168 voting members are set to elect their next chair on Friday, a contest that will take place during the committee’s winter meeting at a seaside luxury resort.

“I think we need a change, I think we need to get some new blood in the RNC, I like what Harmeet Dhillon said about getting the RNC out of D.C.,” said DeSantis, who is expected to mount a 2024 presidential bid. “I do think we need some fresh thinking. And practically you need grassroots Republicans to power this organization with volunteering and donations, and I think it’s going to be very difficult to energize people to want to give money and volunteer their time with the RNC if they don’t change direction.”

DeSantis made his comments during an interview with Charlie Kirk, the conservative founder of Turning Point USA who is supporting Dhillon.

DeSantis went on to criticize the GOP for losses in the 2022 midterm elections, when the political environment was “tailor-made to make big gains in the House and the Senate and state houses all around the country. And yet that didn’t happen.”

In the aftermath of the 2022 midterms, the Florida GOP governor drew accolades from Republicans across the country after he won reelection by historic margins, including in the traditional blue stronghold of Miami-Dade county.

At a press conference in Miami later Thursday, DeSantis did not address his decision to make last-minute comments on the chairman’s race.

DeSantis’ support for Dhillon is the most high profile so far. Dhillon counts Fox News stars who carry significant influence in the conservative movement — including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham — among her supporters. Roughly 30 RNC members have been listed on her campaign’s official website, but it’s unclear if she has the kind of widespread support among the voting members to win. McDaniel in November, prior to Dhillon announcing her bid, boasted the support of 107 members.

Former President Donald Trump, who picked McDaniel for chair of the RNC following his 2016 victory, and whom Dhillon represents in legal cases, has so far stayed out of the race, declining to pick one over the other. But some of his top lieutenants, including Susie Wiles, have been supportive of McDaniel.

After emerging from a members-only breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach, where the RNC is gathering this week, Dhillon told reporters that she didn’t consider DeSantis’ praise an “endorsement.”

“I call that answering a question and weighing in. An endorsement is something on somebody’s stationery, that says ‘I heartily endorse this person.’”

Dhillon insisted she will remain neutral in any 2024 primary, and suggested McDaniel would not be. McDaniel has said she will remain neutral.

“President Trump’s team is here whipping votes for Ronna … so I think that speaks for itself.”

Dhillon’s team was caught off guard by DeSantis’ remarks on Thursday, though thrilled with his show of support, said Caroline Wren, Dhillon’s campaign adviser. Her allies believe it could further influence members to support Dhillon in the final hours of the campaign.

Dhillon said while leaving the Thursday morning breakfast, she heard from multiple members who told her they were switching their votes, but declined to elaborate further on her vote count.

Wren said DeSantis was among other influential figures in the conservative movement to call for a “change of leadership in the RNC” and who “want to start winning elections.”

Soon after DeSantis’ announcement, another top Republican in Florida, Sen. Rick Scott, jumped to make his own comments on the RNC chair race, praising McDaniel but also falling short of issuing an explicit endorsement. In a tweet, Scott praised McDaniel’s “major role in helping turn Florida red,” despite DeSantis claiming Republican gains in the state were not due to the RNC’s efforts.

McDaniel has boasted having the support of the overwhelming majority of RNC members in her reelection bid, though Dhillon’s team argues McDaniel’s support has been soft ahead of Friday’s secret ballot vote.

McDaniel was in the same closed-door breakfast as Dhillon when the DeSantis news broke, and members weren’t immediately available to comment on the development.

DeSantis’ decision to weigh on the RNC race came hours after Trump gave an endorsement — not in the contentious battle for chair but in the race for RNC treasurer. Trump backed Joe Gruters, a state senator and current chair of the Republican Party of Florida. Gruters is a backer of McDaniel and has not had a close relationship with DeSantis

Last week, Gruters was forced to call a meeting at which the party was being asked to consider a no confidence vote in McDaniel. Ultimately, the vote was not considered because not enough Florida GOP executive committee members showed up. But a rally outside the vote drew a large crowd of conservatives, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

Trump has also endorsed in the co-chair race, backing North Carolina GOP chair Michael Whatley.

Gary Fineout contributed to this report.

RNC challenger not ready to concede to McDaniel

DANA POINT, Calif. — The Republican National Committee’s 168 members and their guests buzzed around the Waldorf Astoria on Wednesday, all under the same roof for the first time since a bitter race for party chair began nearly two months ago.

Weeks of bickering on email chains, dueling on Twitter, bomb throwing on primetime conservative television and a flurry of phone calls to whip votes are now culminating in a three-day retreat with far fewer fireworks — or elbows — than some members anticipated.

To supporters of Ronna McDaniel, the incumbent chair seeking a rare fourth term, it’s a sign that she has the overwhelming support she has boasted ahead of Friday’s secret ballot. The fight is over, they say. And, by most indications, she is favored to win reelection.

But to the dogged team whipping votes for Harmeet Dhillon, the California national committee member taking on McDaniel, the congenial environment is all the more reason to keep making their case. Parading around the hotel its high-profile surrogates, former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and country artist John Rich, the Dhillon camp set them up with members they thought might still be persuadable that the RNC needs change.

As one GOP operative attending the meeting put it, RNC members have “historically backstabbed each other” on secret ballots, citing past races for lower leadership positions where candidates found out the hard way they didn’t have the votes that they were promised.

Oscar Brock, the national committee member from Tennessee and a member of Dhillon’s whip team, worked committee colleagues from the lobby of the resort Wednesday evening, keeping a mental list of potentially undecided members to speak with. By his count, as many as 30 members remain on the fence in a race where the winner will need a majority — at least 85 of the 168.

Caroline Wren, a Republican strategist running Dhillon’s chair campaign, said Wednesday night that Dhillon “needs to sway at least 12 more people,” but noted she had well over a day to do so and had just given an “incredibly moving speech” about her immigrant background to members in a closed-door candidate forum that evening.

Roger Villere, the national committee member from Louisiana, told POLITICO he spoke with three members Wednesday who had changed their vote to Dhillon, but did not specify who.

“I think Ronna still has the edge, but Harmeet is still in the fight,” Brock said with a smile. “There are the saints, the sinners and the savable.”

But despite Dhillon allies saying a handful of undecided members have come over to their side since arriving at the luxury resort, there have been no obvious signs of mass movement toward the San Francisco attorney — the kind of momentum she needs after listing just 30 member endorsements, compared to more than 100 by McDaniel.

On Wednesday, McDaniel’s team announced two more members publicly backing her, the state party chairs from Wisconsin and Vermont, who had not previously weighed in on the race. It came hours after Dhillon’s team had shown up in force during an evening happy hour in the hotel lobby.

Next to windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Dhillon and a dozen or so supporters Tuesday night greeted fellow members gathered at the hotel bar before business officially kicked off.

Among those being lobbied was Paul Dame, the Vermont GOP chair who said he had kept an open mind about the race the past two months and held off on committing his vote until Wednesday morning.

Dame released a statement endorsing McDaniel, criticizing Dhillon’s aggressive campaign tactics that disparage the party and its current officials in the process. In an interview, Dame said he reached the conclusion after one tweet too many by Dhillon going after the RNC establishment — a tactic she and her allies have defended as a necessary part of campaigning against the incumbent.

“She has kind of set up her campaign around the idea that ‘the RNC is corrupt, and it’s going to stay corrupt unless you put me in to fix it,’” Dame said. “And I think that puts us in a really tough spot, and it’s created an unnecessary division.”

While Dame had originally planned to keep quiet about his vote, he decided to type up a lengthy statement explaining his decision. Dame said he knows he’ll have to talk through his vote and confidence in McDaniel’s abilities with grassroots activists in his state who have been energized by Dhillon’s bid, and who believe Dhillon is on track to oust McDaniel this week.

“I really felt like there needed to be a voice out there making the case for Ronna, to prepare people who could otherwise get upset on Friday if it’s a sudden shock,” Dame said.

During her speech at the member forum Wednesday night, Dhillon directly addressed the criticism that she has disparaged fellow Republicans and used divisive rhetoric. She responded to an email sent to all members this week by McDaniel supporter Jeff Kaufmann, the Iowa GOP chair, which highlighted examples of Dhillon’s public comments about RNC members having “contempt for the grassroots” and members working “very little” in between RNC gatherings.

“When I look at what I seem to have been characterized as saying, it looks like I’m a horrible person,” Dhillon said, according to a person in the room. “From the bottom of my heart, just as we don’t like the liberal national news media mischaracterizing what we say, let’s be fair to one another as well, and understand that … if you just put half the answer, you may get a distorted view of what I feel.”

The only public “debate” in the race for chair was held Wednesday afternoon and featured just one of the three candidates — My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, another challenger who has just one publicly declared supporter. Dhillon sent a surrogate, political strategist and fundraiser Caroline Wren, who is advising her campaign for chair. Wren said Dhillon was unable to make the debate due to committee meetings she had to attend that afternoon.

A name tag for McDaniel remained in front of an empty seat as both Lindell and Wren tag-teamed to criticize her performance as party chair. McDaniel previously said she would not take part in rogue debating, explaining she was already participating in the RNC’s members-only candidate forum being held Wednesday evening at the Waldorf.

The livestreamed public forum, organized by conservative radio host John Fredericks, a McDaniel detractor, was held at a budget hotel 2 1/2 miles down the road from the RNC resort. Grassroots activists packed the small rented meeting room, where Virginia national committee member Rich Anderson, who says he has not decided how he will vote, moderated the forum.

Other signs of McDaniel’s continued grip on the RNC are evident at the retreat. High-profile Republicans who have endorsed her reelection bid, including former Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, were tapped to headline a members lunch and dinner Thursday.

And while Dhillon’s team distributed tote bags with her campaign signs and continued to press members for support, McDaniel’s campaign team has taken a more subtle approach at the meeting, though it had surrogates on hand for support like Reince Priebus, a former RNC chair and Trump White House chief of staff, as well as former Georgia lawmaker Vernon Jones.

Both Dhillon and McDaniel are set to hold late-night informational receptions for members ahead of Friday’s vote.

“We’re getting very, very close,” Wren said. “But I’m not going to lie: It’s still an uphill battle.”

Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

Elaine Chao responds to Donald Trump’s racist attacks on her

Over the past several months, the leading Republican presidential candidate has launched a series of racist attacks on the wife of the Republican Party’s Senate leader, a woman who once served in his Cabinet.

But while former President Donald Trump’s taunts at Elaine Chao — demeaning her as “Coco Chow” or a variation of Mitch McConnell’s “China-loving wife” — have been mostly met with silence from fellow GOP officials, the main target of them is now speaking out.

“When I was young, some people deliberately misspelled or mispronounced my name. Asian Americans have worked hard to change that experience for the next generation,” Chao said in a statement to POLITICO. “He doesn’t seem to understand that, which says a whole lot more about him than it will ever say about Asian Americans.”

Chao’s statement is an extremely rare case of the former Transportation Secretary wading into the political thicket that her former boss has laid around her since the end of his administration. It suggests that discomfort with Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric has reached a new level amid several high-profile shootings targeting Asian Americans.

On at least a half a dozen occasions, Trump has taken to his social media platform, Truth Social, to criticize McConnell’s leadership, and to suggest, among other things, that he is conflicted because of his wife’s connection to China. Last fall, in a message widely viewed by Republicans and Democrats as a threat, he said that McConnell “has a DEATH WISH.”

But the personal attacks on Chao have stood out above the others, both for their overt racism and the relatively little pushback they’ve received. McConnell and his team have not responded. And on the rare occasion where she has been asked about them, Chao has pleaded for reporters to not amplify the remarks. Other Republicans have dismissed the attacks as Trump just being Trump. The former president “likes to give people nicknames,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in October on CNN.

Chao immigrated to the U.S. when she was a child from Taiwan and is one of six daughters of Ruth Mulan Chu and James S.C. Chao, the founder of the Foremost Group, a large shipping company based in New York. She went on to graduate from Harvard Business School and served in multiple Republican administrations, and was the first Asian American woman in a presidential Cabinet as Labor secretary for George W. Bush and Transportation secretary for Trump.

Chao’s personal story played an important role in her tenure. She blanketed the airwaves, especially with local media, talking about her immigration story and the promise America holds for others from far-off places.

At times her bureaucratic skills were tested under Trump, as he routinely criticized her husband even as she served in his Cabinet. Chao said at the time that she remained loyal to both men despite their differences.

“I stand by my man — both of them,” Chao told reporters at Trump Tower following a 2017 spat between Trump and McConnell.

But Chao reached her breaking point after Jan. 6. She resigned from the Cabinet, saying the riots “deeply troubled me in a way I simply cannot set aside.”

The statement did not sit well with Trump, who once lauded her work in his Cabinet and he began to include her in his attacks on McConnell. His attacks have “bewildered” Chao, according to a former senior administration official who remains close to her. But she initially decided not to respond since it just “creates another news cycle.”

“Especially for Asians, it’s critical to have filial piety — you honor the family name. And that’s a hit not only to her personal reputation but her name and family,” said the former official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the former secretary. “It’s offensive and a stain on everything he achieved for Asian Americans.”

Steven Cheung, Trump’s spokesperson who is Asian American, said in a statement that the ex-president’s criticism of Chao was centered on her family’s potential financial conflicts and not race. Chao has been scrutinized over her family’s shipping business. Though an inspector general report released after Trump left office did not make a formal finding of any ethics violations, it did detail multiple instances of Chao’s office handling business related to her family’s company.

“People should stop feigning outrage and engaging in controversies that exist only in their heads,” Cheung said. “What’s actually concerning is her family’s deeply troubling ties to Communist China, which has undermined American economic and national security.”

But few outside Trump’s inner circle dispute that the ex-president’s posts about Chao are racist. And privately, GOP officials have raised concerns that his rhetoric is not mere background noise but an illustration of the way he has fundamentally altered the spectrum of accepted political discourse.

“Trump’s repeated racist attacks on Elaine Chao are beneath the office he once held and particularly despicable in this moment when the Asian American community has been subject to threats and harassment,” said Alyssa Farah, a former administration official turned critic of Trump.

The latest Trump attack — a suggestion that Chao may have been responsible for President Joe Biden bringing classified documents with him to his post-vice presidency office in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood — came amid a series of shootings that targeted Asian American communities. All of that has taken place against the backdrop of a rise of violence directed at Asian Americans.

While combating the rise of China has emerged as a rare issue with bipartisan support, there are concerns among lawmakers that anti-China attitudes could contribute to violence against Asian Americans. Some Republicans say Trump’s repeated and personal attacks in particular have hurt party efforts to make further inroads among Asian American voters — a task that the Trump 2020 campaign itself tried to undertake.

Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric has been directed at others beyond Chao. Over the weekend, he went after a Biden aide, Kathy Chung, believed to be responsible for packing the then vice president’s materials when he was leaving office in 2017. He has said that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s name “sounds Chinese” (Youngkin is not Chinese). He has mimicked Asian accents while talking about Asian leaders. He has mocked Asian accents on the campaign trail; he charged a reporter with asking a “nasty question” about Covid testing while insinuating she was doing so because of her Asian background. And he called Covid “Kung-flu.”

Lanhee Chen, a Stanford University professor who unsuccessfully ran as the Republican candidate for California controller last fall, claimed Trump’s language has already hurt the GOP’s ability to reach voters.

“I saw that firsthand when I was a candidate,” said Chen, the son of immigrants from Taiwan. “I talked to a lot of Asian American voters in my state and the feedback I got was, ‘What you represent is great, I love the vision, but I don’t know if I can vote for someone from the same party as Donald Trump because of all actual – and in other cases perceived – commentary towards Asian Americans over the last several years.”

“And the attacks against Elaine Chao are really puzzling given that she did really good work in his administration and accomplished a lot and benefited his own presidency.”

Asian Americans are among the fastest growing voting blocs in the United States, making up 5.5 percent of the entire eligible voting population, according to Pew Research Center. Those numbers are only expected to grow.

Asian American voters typically lean Democrat, but the Republican Party has invested millions in reaching them in states like California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona. In an op-ed before the midterms, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel made the case for Asian Americans to join the GOP over shared concerns about the economy and public safety.

But while Trump’s comments haven’t helped with the coalition building, some Republicans predict it will mostly rebound on him.

“It’s a bizarre obsession he has with her,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and former McConnell aide. “If you heard someone on the street making these rants you’d expect to see them in a sandwich board or a straight jacket.”

Mitch Daniels on Senate bid: ‘I’m worried about winning it and regretting it’

Mitch Daniels is on a Goldilocks mission: Finding out whether the Senate is just right for the storied Republican’s deal-cutting style.

The former Indiana governor and Purdue University president embarked on a tour of Capitol Hill Wednesday to figure out whether running for his state’s open Senate seat makes sense, talking to senators both happy and frustrated with their jobs. Daniels has insisted politics is not on his mind, as conservatives line up behind potential primary rival Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). He’s instead emphasized that he’s figuring out whether he’ll be happy with six years schlepping through the Capitol as the most junior senator in the building.

“I’m not the least bit worried, honestly, about losing an election. I’m worried about winning it and regretting it for six years,” Daniels said Wednesday after meeting with Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.). “I say this with great respect for those who do it. But you know, that doesn’t mean it fits me or fits me at this time of my life. So that’s what this field trip’s about.”

Daniels’ decision will reverberate across the Republican Party, from towns and cities of Indiana to Mar-a-Lago. Donald Trump Jr. has already attacked the more centrist Daniels, and the former governor jumping into the race will only prompt more flak from the right.

Daniels is facing attacks from the deep-pocketed Club for Growth, which is trying to keep him out of the race in favor of Banks. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have endorsed Banks, as well.

Daniels repeatedly said he’s not worried about political support: “That would take care of itself and we’re drowning in offers of help and money. I’ll say it again, I’m not worried about the election, I’m worried about winning it and deciding it was a mistake.”

A Banks-Daniels contest would amount to a major fight over the direction of the Senate GOP, particularly since the Republican nominee will be heavily favored to win the seat being vacated by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who is running for governor. Daniels is a former OMB director who famously called for a “truce” on the culture wars in 2010, while Banks is a pugnacious fighter on social issues and a leading voice among House conservatives.

Daniels is also expected to meet with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) during his visit. Daines has spoken to Banks as well.

The former governor said he’s going to make an announcement soon rather than drag out the drama.

“I don’t like to keep people waiting. I don’t like to dally, so you’ll know something, literally, in a very short time,” Daniels said. “This is the final stage of my discovery process.”

McDaniel vs. Dhillon: Inside the battle for the RNC

An early showdown destined to shape the 2024 election cycle is happening this week inside a luxury waterfront hotel in Orange County, Calif., where weeks of shadow-boxing between incumbent Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and her foremost challenger, conservative lawyer Harmeet Dhillon, will transition into a high-stakes political brawl.

McDaniel is seeking a fourth two-year term, counseling stability atop the RNC ahead of the coming presidential election, while Dhillon is waging an insurgent campaign to unseat her, arguing that change is needed following the GOP’s abysmal midterm performance.

The sparring has grown intense, with the two camps trading accusations of mismanagement, intimidation, and other misdeeds. And in interviews with POLITICO this week, neither candidate showed any sign of easing up ahead of this week’s RNC winter meeting in Dana Point.

“We just can’t afford to take our foot off the gas,” McDaniel said, projecting confidence she would prevail over Dhillon.

Dhillon, meanwhile, asserted that with stronger leadership, Republicans “might have won bigger in the 2022 election, and we would be ready to win in 2024.”

Friday’s election among the 168 RNC members will follow two days of meet-and-greets, debates and glad-handing among the other typical party business. Measured by public statements of support, McDaniel would appear safe: She has more than 100 members publicly backing her, while Dhillon has fewer than 30. (MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell is also running, but few RNC members take him seriously.)

But the bitter tenor of the fight, the enormous stakes for the GOP going into the 2024 elections and the uncertainty of a secret-ballot election have elevated the contest into a political battle royale.

Dhillon on Monday emailed her latest pitch to RNC members — pledging to make changes that include moving her family from California to Washington (McDaniel commutes from Michigan), banning “extremely loud entertainment” at committee events, and maintaining a “culture of collegiality and cooperation” inside the party.

In the subsequent interview, Dhillon went chapter-and-verse on the failings she sees under McDaniel: The RNC has overspent on consultants and “frivolous expenditures that don’t win elections.” It has fallen behind Democrats in encouraging voting before Election Day and making sure as many of its voters’ ballots are counted as possible. And, she argued, the party “whiffed” in shaping the GOP’s midterm message — arguing that the RNC has to lead, not follow, when the party is out of power.

McDaniel rejected the accusations that the RNC fumbled the midterms, arguing that her efforts to build the party infrastructure “made it a better election than it would have otherwise been” and that Dhillon and her other critics simply “don’t understand what the RNC’s job actually is.”

“The infrastructure we built made it so a Republican could get to the finish line,” she said, noting that more than 4 million more GOP voters turned out nationwide than Democrats. “But the difference between why one Republican did and didn’t is down to the campaign, the candidate and messaging, which the RNC does not have control over.”

Dhillon said losing Republican candidates such as Arizona’s Kari Lake, Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz and Georgia’s Herschel Walker were no more flawed than the Democrats who beat them. Republicans just have to get as “efficient” as Democrats, she said, at turning out their voters and making sure their ballots are counted.

“John Fetterman could not even speak and articulate for himself during much of his campaign, and he got elected,” she said, referring to the new Pennsylvania senator, who suffered a stroke mid-campaign. “So I disagree with that explanation.”

Hanging over the contest is the shadow of former president Donald Trump, who has ties to both candidates but has not made an endorsement in the race.

Dhillon and McDaniel have this in common: Neither was eager to finger Trump for the GOP’s recent electoral failings — including his role in actively discouraging Republican voters from casting mail ballots or elevating several of the cycle’s most disappointing candidates.

But Dhillon is seeking to walk a fine line as she maintains a coalition of MAGA die-hards and Never Trumpers who share an interest in ousting McDaniel. It’s meant assuming some new and nuanced positions for an attorney who, after the 2020 election, cheered Rudy Giuliani’s suggestion that he found cause to overturn Pennsylvania’s results, solicited donations for Trump’s election defense fund on Twitter, and wrote an op-ed on Townhall.com entitled “Republican lawyers are fighting to stop the steal.”

Among those backing Dhillon are such Trump diehards as activist Charlie Kirk, Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward and Stop the Steal organizer Caroline Wren.

Yet in the interview, Dhillon rejected Trump’s claims of a stolen 2020 election and confirmed Joe Biden as the rightful winner. She noted that she did not personally file or litigate any of the lawsuits filed by Trump allies seeking to challenge the election.

“The time to ensure the integrity of an election is before the election,” she said. “And if you haven’t prepared for that, don’t start scrambling and hiring lawyers after the fact. It’s too late.”

McDaniel, meanwhile, faces blowback from Trump skeptics who argue she doesn’t push back on Trump enough. In an email to RNC members first reported by the Washington Post, Tennessee committeeman Oscar Brock wrote that “the reality is that every time Donald Trump says jump, Ronna asks, ‘How high?’”

McDaniel has responded by pledging repeatedly to keep the 2024 primary process neutral and promising to bridge divisions inside the party. “I’m running a unity campaign, and part of that is, as party chair, not attacking other Republicans,” she said.

But Dhillon said some Republicans have told her they are already skeptical of McDaniel’s assurances, given that she tapped Trump loyalist David Bossie to run the 2024 GOP debates. McDaniel’s backers, meanwhile, have privately raised doubts about what the RNC would look like under Dhillon, who has suggested she will hire MAGA hardliners to run the organization.

The whisper campaigns have been relentless, and they have been accompanied by an effort to whip up a grassroots uprising on Dhillon’s behalf — prompting McDaniel to denounce some of the scorched-earth tactics.

One Dhillon ally published RNC members’ contact information, encouraging GOP voters to hound them to oppose McDaniel, while Kirk, a MAGA activist with a massive following, threatened in an email to RNC members last month to replace them with activists who “better represent the grassroots voice.”

“It’s intentionally inflaming passions based on things that aren’t true,” McDaniel said, warning that the nastiness bodes ill for 2024, “with Republicans attacking other Republicans to the point that we can’t come together after.”

Dhillon rejected McDaniel’s suggestion that her longshot campaign is unnecessarily dividing the party ahead of a critical presidential election. “This is not personal,” she said. “You have to point out the reasons for change. I try to do that as persuasively and civilly as possible.”

While the arithmetic appears formidable for Dhillon, she insisted still has an “excellent chance” of pulling off an upset. While POLITICO has previously reported that party insiders believe she has about 60 votes, Dhillon herself would not talk numbers.

She did, however, offer an explanation for why so few members have publicly endorsed her. Some committed to McDaniel before she entered the race and “don’t want to offend her,” she said, while others are running for leadership posts of their own and don’t want to alienate the incumbent and her supporters. And some, she suggested, fear their state party’s finances could be affected if they cross the sitting chair.

In a late bid to lower the race’s temperature, Dhillon vowed if elected to work with Republicans she has clashed with — including elected officials, such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, whom she has attacked at times, and even McDaniel herself.

“She’s an important leader in the party,” Dhillon said, inviting McDaniel to stay on in a leadership role. “She has a lot of skills and I’m sure she has things that could teach me.”