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The Sweep: It’s Party Time
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The Sweep: It’s Party Time

Why Ronna McDaniel will remain as chair of the Republican National Committee.

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images.)

The Heavy Hors d’Oeuvres: Why Did Sinema Do It? 

In 2018, Krysten Sinema beat Martha McSally by 2.5 points in the race to replace retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, becoming the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state in 30 years. Since then, she’s acquired a bit of a maverick-y reputation. Her love of bright (very bright) colors shocked a Capitol Hill full of navy and black. But so did her voting record—the first bisexual member of Congress bucking progressives at every turn. In January, she was censured by the Arizona Democratic Party for defending the filibuster, which meant the end of Joe Biden’s voting rights legislation.

Polling in the state is clear: Democrats are not happy. Her approval rating at one point was higher among Republicans in the state than members of her own party, although that was a bit misleading. That poll found that 54 percent of Arizona Republicans didn’t like her,  51 percent of independents didn’t like her, and 57 percent of Democrats in the state didn’t like her. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Harvard-educated Iraq War veteran, was already favored to win the Democratic primary if and when he officially hopped in the race. 

But Sinema beat them to the punch and left the Democratic Party last week, changing her party identification to independent. A lot of people wanted to know what effect this would have on Biden’s judicial picks or Senate committee membership in a 51-49 Senate. The answer is: none. The Senate didn’t actually have 51 Democrats even before her announcement. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are also independents who “caucus” with the Democrats—same as Sinema says she plans to do. (Technically, she says she won’t attend caucus meetings but she will accept committee assignments from Democrats … tomato, tom-ah-to.)

So what was the point? It’s all about reelection. Sinema isn’t going to face a Democratic primary challenger because she isn’t going to run in the Democratic primary. It’s a high-wire act because unlike, say, Georgia, Arizona doesn’t have a majority rule in which a candidate has to get more than 50 percent of the vote to be elected. So Sinema-the-Independent will now run in an election with a Republican and a Democrat—and the one with the most votes wins. 

To the extent you think that puts Sinema in a tough spot for reelection, it does. But it puts Democrats in a really tough spot. If they nominate a popular, viable candidate like Gallego, he and Sinema almost certainly split the left-of-center vote and a Republican takes the seat. Sure, Sinema loses, but so do they, at least until 2030. If they want to have any chance of keeping the seat, Arizona Democrats will be forced to nominate, ironically, Sinema (like the Utah Dems did in getting behind Evan McMullin’s independent bid) to consolidate their vote. Sure, there’s an argument that Sinema will take more votes from disaffected Republicans if the GOP nominates Masters again or, heaven forbid, Kari Lake, but I think that’s a tough case to make standing here today. 

Gallego made the rounds on cable news last night with Anderson Cooper on CNN and Chris Hayes at MSNBC, arguing that the math works in his/Democrats’ favor even with her in the race. “I actually think the best thing that could ever happen is Senator Sinema stays all the way to the end,” he said, “It will guarantee a Democratic Senate seat and I look forward to hopefully being in that situation.”

It’s a game of chicken, and Sinema’s announcement means she just cut the brake lines in her car. Even so, I think Gallego might get his shot. A sizable chunk of the Arizona Democratic Party would rather lose the seat if winning means keeping Sinema in office.

The Meal: The Party Committees Get to Work

After a midterm election, both political parties have just a few months to reorganize and kick into high gear for the presidential election. We’ll get to the primary calendar next week, but for now let’s talk leadership.

Democrats, for example, need a new chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee since their last guy, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, lost his re-election bid. It’ll be up to incoming minority leader Hakeem Jeffries to make the pick, but it’s not obvious which direction he’ll go and he has philosophical issues to consider first: 

Some Latino Democrats want one of their own after a cycle of tense relations with the DCCC. Progressives are hoping for someone who can mend relations with them after bruising primary battles. Endangered Democrats prefer a chair who understands their experience — but not one who might lose in 2024, like Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) did this year. And some members are still pushing for a leader that isn’t even a member of Congress, an unusual move likely not allowed under the party’s rules, though there’s no consensus on whom.

In fact, that paragraph might sum up the Democrats’ entire intraparty decisions for the next two years. So let’s leave it there for now.

Obviously, I’m more familiar with the Republican side of things. I worked at the RNC in the 2014 cycle, and there were rumors that Carly Fiorina was making moves toward a run for the post if Trump lost in 2016. So believe me when I tell you that the world of “the 168”—the voting members of the committee—is as fascinating as it is bewildering. 

From the outside, it might seem strange when I tell you that Ronna McDaniel is going to get reelected as RNC chair. Easily. After all, it’s been a mixed bag for Republicans in every cycle since she assumed the position in 2017. In 2018, Democrats took a net of 41 House seats, but Republicans netted two Senate seats. In 2020, Republicans lost the White House and the Senate but picked up 14 seats in the House. This time around, Democrats picked up a Senate seat and Republicans picked up nine House seats. 

But this is why it’s helpful to understand that not everyone gets a vote. The Republican National Committee chair is elected by the Republican National Committee members—168 of them. Each state, U.S. territory (American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands) and the District of Columbia elects a national committeeman, a national committeewoman, and a chairman (which is how you get to 168). 

Importantly, these are the only people who have a vote for RNC chair. To even get nominated, a candidate must have the support of at least two members in three states. In theory, a candidate could have 58 votes and not even make it onto the ballot if they don’t understand the rules. Which is all to say, this is an insiders game. Ronna McDaniel was a member of the 168 as the Michigan state party chair. Reince “Rhymes With Pints” Priebus was Wisconsin state party chair and RNC general counsel before he ran. 

But you’ve also got to understand the psyche of the 168. Ask any member what the RNC’s biggest mistake of the last 20 years has been, and they’ll give you two words: Michael Steele. Sure, he was in the position only for the 2010 cycle, and the talking points sound good: The RNC raised close to $200 million, retook control of the House with 63 pickups (the largest since 1938), and netted six Senate seats and six governorships. 

But winning isn’t everything, and Steele was not one of their own. In 2004, Barack Obama splashed onto the national scene with his DNC convention speech. Steele, then Maryland’s lieutenant governor, filled the same spot for the RNC. So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Barack Obama became the first African American president of the United States that Michael Steele became the first African American chair of the Republican Party. 

It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off for the 168, though. Ask RNC elders and they’ll be quick to tell you his sins. Steele raised far less money than normal and spent a far higher percentage of the money the RNC had on fundraising, his famed “Fire Pelosi” bus tour spent half of its time in congressional districts that weren’t in play, he left the party $22 million in debt, he widened the rift between the old guard and the new Tea Party wing, and his two years were plagued by resignations and leaks. As was reported at the time, “RNC spending on private jets had doubled, limo trips had tripled and meal expenses jumped from $306,000 to $599,000 compared with the same period in 2005.” 

And in an incident that became a metaphor for the combination of spending and scandal that plagued his tenure, the RNC made international headlines after it reimbursed a $2,000 expenditure at Voyeur Hollywood West, an S&M club for high rollers in California. As one article described it, the “dark, leather-heavy club features a net hung above the bar where topless performers—dressed in little more than masks and bikini bottoms—writhe above the heads of clubgoers … and topless ‘dancers’ acting out S&M scenes throughout the night.” (Believe it or not, I think I got invited to that little soiree and regretfully was unable to attend.) 

Here we are a decade later, but the 168 aren’t in any mood to take a flier. The RNC will hold elections at its winter meeting in a month. After New York gubernatorial candidate and soon-to-be-retired Rep. Lee Zeldin announced he wouldn’t seek the post, the only announced candidates are Ronna McDaniel, Harmeet Dhillon, and Mike Lindell. 

Lindell is the MyPillow guy who has had his cell phone seized by the FBI, is defending himself in a $1.3 billion defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems, and has been sanctioned by a federal judge for filing a frivolous lawsuit. His candidacy is a non-starter. The only shock will be if he manages to find the “6 votes in 3 states” to make it onto the ballot.

Dhillon is another story. She is, after all, a member of the 168 as California’s national chairwoman. And, more importantly, she is the only viable option for any 168ers itching for a change. But the fact that her law firm represents Donald Trump may not be the endorsement it used to be, and the $1 million she’s taken from the RNC in legal fees is being portrayed as self-dealing. 

Still, her enemies aren’t taking any chances. An anonymous author has been emailing hit pieces on Dhillon to people like me. And “Dhillon is Michael Steele 2.0” is pretty much the worst thing you can say about someone who wants to be RNC chair. “The reality is Harmeet has never won an election,” the anonymous author writes, “Since day one as California’s national committeewoman, she’s used her title as one of the 168 to personally enrich herself. Every TV appearance is always about her.” Dhillon will probably make it past the nomination hurdle, but that will be about where the train stops. 

The more interesting question is why Zeldin didn’t run despite plenty of encouragement from the outside and a vat of goodwill behind him. The answer is easy: McDaniel isn’t only going to win this—it’s going to be a landslide. As of this week, I’m told 108 members have endorsed her. They just don’t think any of this is her fault. And they may be right. 

Here’s the thinking from one state chairman who is clearly going to be voting for McDaniel:

While we are all frustrated that more Republican candidates did not win their races, the reality is that Republican turnout was very high–-meaning the RNC did our job. Millions more Republicans came out to vote than Democrats. 

As this analysis below points out, ticket splitting led certain Republicans in some states to win their races while others lost. The mantra “candidates matter” has been repeated a million times because it is true. If we want a better outcome than we saw in November, Republicans need to get serious about recruiting and electing strong candidates who can win general elections. I saw a comment yesterday that if the team loses you should fire the coach. The analogy is flawed because unlike the RNC, coaches get to select the key players. In our world, the key players are selected by Republicans in the primary and our job is to get voters out to vote.  We did that.

It may seem like the definition of insanity for the GOP to keep their party chairwoman in place after the party has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory so many times. But if you cock your head and squint your eyes just so … it might just mean they’re actually blaming the right person. 

The Dessert

This holiday season, I’m reminded to celebrate the chance to learn about someone else’s traditions and keep an open mind about new cuisine.

(Last year, I learned I didn’t hate olives as much as I thought!)  

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.