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

Last updated on January 26, 2023

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 aninterview 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.