DANA POINT, Calif. — Driving debate at this week’s Republican National Committee meeting was one big question: Can the official party apparatus truly be neutral in the 2024 GOP presidential primary? For years, the RNC has been closely tied to former President Donald Trump’s political operation, but in the upcoming cycle, a number of serious candidates beyond Trump are expected to enter the field.
Neutrality was front-and-center in the contested race for chair where, on Friday, Ronna McDaniel — originally handpicked by Trump for the role — was able to cruise to re-election for a fourth term heading the RNC, much of which has been remade 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 running in a contested major party primary.
Members here at the RNC’s winter meeting were cautious about offering Trump outward support, and both McDaniel and her lead challenger, Harmeet Dhillon — an RNC committeewoman from California and attorney whose law firm has represented Trump in recent years — have pledged to lead the party in a neutral manner, in accordance with RNC bylaws, as the primary season begins to heat up.
But some weren’t so certain that’d be the case, particularly with McDaniel’s re-election.
“If you look at our rules, we can individually support who we want to,” said Jonathan Barnett, an RNC committeeman from Arkansas who backed Dhillon. “The chair is not supposed to, but, I mean, that’s a joke. Because she has her job because of him. She may act like she’s saying she’s neutral but look at the appearance.”
Needless to say, how the RNC handles itself in 2024 could affect the primary. The party plays a key role in creating the primary framework, fundraising and debates. As Dhillon told reporters this week, potential candidates have expressed concerns to her about how the party may function in 2024 with Trump on the ticket.
Calling Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “a likely presidential candidate,” Dhillon said Friday that she spoke “not to him but a few others, and several of them echoed concerns about the independence of the party and the primary process.”
“I think just about everybody in this room, in the front of the room, in front of the velvet ropes, voted for President Trump twice,” she 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 in attendance at the three-day RNC meeting. Ahead of the event, the Associated Press reported that one of those advisers, Susie Wiles, notified members privately that Trump was still supportive of McDaniel, while Wiles also publicly defended McDaniel from a report in conservative media casting a negative light on RNC spending.
In any case, some members did express confidence the body would conduct the upcoming primary in a neutral way. Bob Hugin, chairman of the New Jersey GOP, said he didn’t see this as “that big of an issue” in the race for chair since the candidates “have made it a big deal.”
“Being the chair 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 undecided in his vote for chair when he spoke with NBC News on Thursday.
Meanwhile, McDaniel allies expressed confidence that she will oversee a fair process.
“The RNC is committed to be totally neutral,” said Steve Scheffler, an RNC committeeman from Iowa and president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition who backed McDaniel, adding that he sees the 2024 primary contest as “a jump ball” at this point.
Interestingly, the two down-ballot RNC candidates backed by Trump — North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley and Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters — lost their bids for co-chair and treasurer on Friday.
A day earlier, Dhillon had told reporters she thought it was “very problematic” for candidates to accept endorsements from presidential candidates or potential candidates with the party needing to be neutral. In that same discussion, Dhillon was quick to tamp down on comments from DeSantis calling for change at the party that many interpreted to be an endorsement of Dhillon. She also declined to offer her personal position on Trump’s 2024 bid.
“I think when a lot of headlines coming out of here say ‘Trump-installed chairman 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 has addressed that by saying we’re going to have a strict code of conduct,” she continued. “I don’t know that a code of conduct under the current circumstances is going to fix the perception issue. But I’m not in charge of that. I’m a humble member of the 168 now.”
Only just prior to Trump announcing his third presidential bid did the RNC pledge to quit covering the former president’s legal bills in New York. And its committee on debates is being helmed by a close Trump ally, Maryland committeeman David Bossie.
Yet perhaps more notable as far as the 2024 primary 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 more difficult for his opponents to influence delegate selection.
As The New York Times reported in 2019, his political advisers engaged in a monthslong 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 dozen states and territories changed their rules to make it nearly impossible for any divide at the nominating convention.
Bill Palatucci, an RNC committeeman from New Jersey who backed Dhillon, said neutrality was one of his biggest concerns with McDaniel, adding that it was what “disqualifies Ronna.”
“Her actions speak louder than the words,” he said. “She has claimed to be neutral; she’s been anything but.”
“What neutrality means, it’s behind-the-scenes stuff,” he continued. “Like, can we stop paying Donald Trump’s legal bills secretly? Can we speak up when [Trump] says racist things about [former Transportation Secretary] Elaine Chao? That’s what a real leader would do. And that’s what I mean about truly being neutral.”
Oscar Brock, an RNC committeeman from Tennessee who also backed Dhillon, echoed concerns but said members will play a key role in ensuring neutrality.
“One has to know that she’s got a certain loyalty to him,” Brock said of McDaniel. “Do I think she can run a fair and unbiased primary? I hope so. We’re going to make sure she does.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com