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Ronna McDaniel Plans Her RNC Exit
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Ronna McDaniel Plans Her RNC Exit

Plus: Biden surrogates push back on the special counsel report.

Happy Monday! We stayed up extra late to see when three-time Super Bowl champion Travis Kelce and his girlfriend, Taylor Swift, would endorse Joe Biden on the field in Las Vegas—but it never happened. What gives, conspiracy theorists?

Up to Speed

  • Voters in New York’s 3rd Congressional District head to the polls Tuesday in a crucial special election to pick a replacement for George Santos, the Republican expelled from the House of Representatives in December. Democrat Tom Suozzi, a former congressman, has led Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip in recent polling. This suburban, Long Island seat would have voted for now-President Joe Biden over then-President Donald Trump, 53.6 percent to 45.4 percent, had it existed with its current, redistricted boundaries in 2020. Santos nonetheless won the 3rd District in the 2022 midterm elections, and Suozzi is warning that the flood of migrants into New York City caused by the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is creating challenges for his campaign.
  • The super PAC supporting independent presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy Jr. shelled out approximately $7 million to air a 30-second TV ad during the Super Bowl Sunday evening. The spot played on the candidate’s famous, beloved Democratic relatives: his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963; and his father, Robert F. Kennedy, who served as attorney general in his brother’s administration and was assassinated in 1968 while campaigning for the White House. After some of Kennedy’s relatives complained on social media, RFK Jr. apologized, noting that under federal law his campaign is prohibited from coordinating with American Values 2024, the super PAC backing his White House bid.
  • GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin announced Saturday that he will retire from Congress after just four terms. The 39-year-old lawmaker and chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party was considered a rising star in the GOP, with some Republican leaders recruiting him earlier in the cycle to challenge Democrat Tammy Baldwin for her Senate seat in this fall’s election. Gallagher’s decision comes on the heels of threats that he would face a primary challenger after he refused to support the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. 
  • Another respected Republican, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, also revealed she will retire at the year’s end, despite being the chair of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee. The 54-year-old lawmaker from Washington state has served in Congress since 2005. McMorris Rodgers and Gallagher join a growing exodus of members of both parties who are leaving Congress frustrated that political infighting has made legislating harder than usual.
  • Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, sounded off this weekend on both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, though he did not exactly call them out by name. In a speech on Saturday at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Kemp warned that if the 2024 presidential election “becomes a debate about who can outlast the other 80 year-old politician, the American people will lose.” He also called on both parties to avoid listening to their “fringe elements.”
  • Then, in a Sunday appearance on ABC News’ This Week, Kemp made his critique of Trump a little more direct. “Quit looking in the rearview mirror,” he said. “I believe that the voters that are going to decide this presidential election are tired of hearing about the 2020 election and want to focus on what candidates are going to do for them in the months and years ahead.” Kemp crossed Trump after the 2020 election when he refused Trump’s wishes for him to overturn Biden’s victory in Georgia, an action Kemp continues to insist he was powerless to take. The former president backed a primary challenger to Kemp in 2022, but the governor won renomination and reelection handily. On Sunday, Kemp also said that Trump should not receive immunity from criminal charges. “Well, my personal opinion is no one is above the law,” he said.

Ronna on the Rocks

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on April 20, 2023, in Simi Valley, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Ronna McDaniel is prepared to resign as Republican National Committee chairwoman after the South Carolina primary. Sources told Dispatch Politics she has no plans to fight Donald Trump if the likely GOP presidential nominee wants fresh leadership atop the national party.

The three leading candidates to replace McDaniel, should she step down, are: Joe Gruters, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party and now a state senator; Drew McKissick, McDaniel’s second in command at the RNC and chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party; and Michael Whatley, RNC general counsel and chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. Team Trump is partial to Whatley, but the 168 voting members of the RNC—who would have to ratify the former president’s choice—might prefer McKissick.

Whatley and McKissick are both clearly interested, sources say, and the latter has been working the phones to gauge the support of fellow committee members. If Trump decides to push McDaniel out, the RNC would likely move up its regularly scheduled spring business meeting from April to March to speed up the timing of the election required to install her successor.

“Trump’s choice would win if he’s actually supported by Trump,” an RNC member told us. “But if it’s half-hearted support, somebody else could win.”

McDaniel, 50, is the niece of Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor who is now an outgoing U.S. senator from Utah. Trump selected McDaniel to lead the RNC after he was elected in 2016, impressed with the job she did as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party in that contest. The 45th president won Michigan that year, the first Republican nominee to do so in decades.

As the top RNC official ever since, McDaniel has not committed any obvious firing offenses. She easily won reelection twice, even after Trump was ousted by President Joe Biden. But Trump’s populist allies have always been suspicious of the RNC chairwoman, viewing her as an agent of the GOP establishment that predated Trump. They also needed a scapegoat after the former president and his endorsed candidates in key down-ballot contests led the GOP to three consecutive losses in 2018, 2020, and 2022.

Blaming McDaniel—who has no influence over policy, candidate recruitment, or party messaging—was convenient. Some McDaniel critics point out that RNC fundraising has been down; others claim the party’s voter turnout program has underperformed. Both tasks are her responsibility. Aside from these disagreements, it’s unclear that replacing McDaniel—four months before the Milwaukee nominating convention and eight months before the general election—would improve matters much, even if it were undeniably true that the RNC chairwoman was falling short.

“This is such a distraction from what we should be doing,” a second RNC member told Dispatch Politics.

Trump and McDaniel met privately in Florida on February 5 to discuss her immediate future with the RNC, the Associated Press reported. They also discussed possible actions Trump might take to tighten his grip on committee operations as he gets closer to becoming the party’s presumptive 2024 presidential nominee. One option, rather than replacing McDaniel, is for the former president to overlay her leadership with aides who report to him. The two plan to talk again, and come to a decision, after the South Carolina primary on February 24. 

Trump is expected to defeat Nikki Haley in that Saturday contes. Indeed, McDaniel urged Haley to halt her campaign after Trump bested the former South Carolina governor in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Haley is raising tens of millions of dollars and has no plans to exit the race until at least after the Super Tuesday primaries on March 5. That could complicate Trump’s bid to fold the RNC into his campaign prior to securing the 1,215 delegates he needs to officially become the presumptive nominee. 

On this front, the former president leads Haley 63 to 17.

Trump so far is keeping any final decision he might have made under wraps but signaling that he does plan to ask McDaniel to relinquish her post. “I think she did great when she ran Michigan for me. I think she did okay, initially, in the RNC. I would say, right now, there will probably be some changes made,” Trump told Fox News earlier this month. 

The RNC declined to comment. But NBC News reported last week that McDaniel assured staff that the palace intrigue surrounding her chairmanship is not distracting her from the job at hand. “I am still hard at work as RNC Chairwoman and building a machine that will elect Republicans up and down the ballot in November,” she said in an internal email. “I am currently on the road fundraising, we’re staffing up with staff on the ground in 15 states.”

Team Biden Gets Defensive on Age

There was a unified message from allies of Joe Biden on this weekend’s Sunday shows: The president’s memory is just fine. Oh, and he’s not going anywhere.

Since late last week when special counsel Robert Hur’s report declined to recommend charging Biden for unlawful retention of classified documents, the questions raised in the report about Biden’s mental acuity, memory, and age have dominated the political conversation. Following Biden’s own defiant press conference on February 8, supporters of the Democratic president are directly pushing back on the description of him as a well-meaning but confused old man.

Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor and chairman of Biden’s campaign, said on NBC News’ Meet the Press that Hur’s representation of the president amounted to an “ad hominem attack.”

“I’ve known [Biden] for 30 years,” Landrieu said. “I have met with him personally, I have met with him with two people, five people, 10 people. I have been on trips with him crisscrossing the country, rebuilding America based on this incredible infrastructure bill that was passed. And I’m telling you, this guy is tough. He’s smart. He’s on his game.”

Democratic operatives have been privately fretting about what the report means as the president prepares for a general election fight, likely against his 2020 Republican opponent, Donald Trump. And Biden’s press conference last week did little to assuage concerns about his age that appear to be widely held by voters. A new ABC News/Ipsos poll found 86 percent of Americans say Biden is too old to serve another term as president. For Biden’s Democratic defenders, the name of the game is to double down on projecting confidence about his mental fitness.

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close Biden ally, echoed Landrieu’s message on ABC News’ This Week, mentioning a recent evening briefing he and other lawmakers gave the president at the White House following a trip to the Middle East. Thinking the meeting with Biden would be short, Coons said he and his colleagues were there for two-and-a-half hours, engaging with Biden and his national security team.

“This is a man who is sharp, who is on top of his game, who knows what’s going on in the Middle East and around the world,” Coons said.

Neither Landrieu nor Coons directly addressed the question of Biden’s memory recall, the most consistent observation about his mental fitness from Hur’s report. But Biden’s personal attorney Bob Bauer, who was in the room during the Hur team’s two days of questioning of Biden in October, did respond to it on CBS News’ Face the Nation.

“Just this past week alone, the president in public remarks mixed up the leaders of France, Germany, and he referred to Egypt as Mexico,” pressed anchor Margaret Brennan. “Does the president have any memory problems?”

“He does not,” Bauer said, before turning the questions back on Hur himself. “I didn’t come away from the special counsel’s failure to ask precise questions and think to myself, he has mental acuity problems. I just thought he was asking bad questions.”

It’s worth noting that the aforementioned ABC News/Ipsos poll also found that 62 percent of Americans believe Trump, who is 77, is too old to serve another term—and that 57 percent say that both men are too old.

But Biden’s problem is that this defense of his cognitive abilities cuts against the image Americans see in his public appearances: an 81-year-old president who is slower than he used to be and frequently finds himself in public appearances searching for words. Whatever Democrats’ complaints about Hur’s report—Landrieu said it was “below the belt” to claim Biden did not remember the year his son Beau died of cancer—it affirmed an image of the president that voters can see nearly every day.

Notable & Quotable

“Don’t take the side of a thug who kills his opponents. Don’t take the side of someone who has gone in and invaded a country and half a million people have died or been wounded because of Putin. Don’t take the side of someone who continues to lie.” 

—Nikki Haley, criticizing Donald Trump’s recent comments that he would not protect NATO allies if they are attacked by Russia, on Face the Nation, February 11, 2024

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.