Who is Michael Whatley, Trump’s pick to lead RNC

whatley samuels APfile MegKinnard

North Carolina Republican Party Chair Michael Whatley has been thrust into the national spotlight after former President Trump backed him to serve as the next leader of the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Whatley is a Trump ally who has echoed the former president’s rhetoric about “election integrity” in the wake of the 2020 election, which Trump has falsely claimed was fraudulent and stolen.

If elected RNC chair, Whatley would face different challenges in overseeing the party. He would have to grapple with the organization’s fundraising struggles, ensure various state party chairs are happy, make sure the party’s ground and data operations are humming for the general election, and appease Trump, whose relationship with Chair Ronna McDaniel soured over the past year.

“I think we’d be hard pressed to see the committee not ratify the person [Trump] wants,” said Doug Heye, a former RNC spokesperson who has known Whatley for 20 years. “There may be some work that has to be done on that … It may not be a unanimous vote. But it seems pretty clear that he’ll be there.”

A lengthy GOP resume

Whatley has spent decades in GOP politics, having served in the George W. Bush administration, as a top aide to former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and on the Trump-Pence transition team.

He has served as chair of the North Carolina GOP since 2019, and he has served as general counsel of the RNC since last year. Taken together, those two positions give him a familiarity with the inner workings of the committee and with many of the 168 members whose votes he’ll need to become chair.

During Whatley’s time as North Carolina GOP chair, Republicans flipped the state Supreme Court and solidified supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Republicans were unable to win back the governor’s mansion in 2020.

Whatley’s critics have pointed to his previous work in the Bush administration to paint him as the kind of Beltway insider Trump frequently rails against. And his win in last year’s North Carolina GOP elections prompted a legal challenge from his opponent, who alleged some ballots were improperly cast. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

A focus on ‘election integrity’

Much of the focus around Whatley since his name first emerged as a possible successor to McDaniel has been on his efforts on “election integrity,” an issue the RNC zeroed in on as Trump pushed the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

“Michael has been with me from the beginning, has done a great job in his home state of North Carolina, and is committed to election integrity, which we must have to keep fraud out of our election so it can’t be stolen,” Trump said in a statement endorsing Whatley.

In a 2021 appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference panel on “protecting elections,” Whatley spoke at length about his efforts to recruit hundreds of attorneys and volunteer poll watchers in North Carolina.

He echoed some of Trump’s rhetoric about mail-in voting, saying absentee balloting can be done effectively when paired with voter ID requirements and pushing back on mass mailing ballots to residents.

Whatley noted roughly 75 percent of the state GOP’s annual operating budget was dedicated to legal costs, something he suggested the party as a whole should mirror.

“This is going to have to be part of the Republican establishment going forward,” he said. “This is going to be lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit.”

Trump would likely exert pressure on the RNC to pursue legal challenges if November’s election doesn’t go his way, just as he did in 2020. And while Whatley’s rhetoric around the legitimacy of elections will likely be closely watched, Heye argued it would be impractical to think Trump would back someone who does not share his views.

“It’s Donald Trump’s RNC. Do we expect he’d back somebody who’s disagreeing with him publicly? No,” Heye said. “The reality is the party chair is going to be a reflection of the nominee.”

Trump putting his stamp on RNC

Whatley’s election as chair would be one piece of a broader effort by Trump to shape the RNC to his liking ahead of the upcoming general election cycle.

In addition to endorsing Whatley, Trump backed his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, for RNC co-chair. He also announced Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, would move to the RNC in what would effectively be the role of chief operating officer.

Trump is on track to be the party’s nominee atop the ticket in November, and Republicans predicted he would receive deference to put his preferred people in charge, as many nominees do.

“I have never had an issue with any nominee putting their imprint on the committee,” said Bill Palatucci, a New Jersey RNC member who has at times been critical of Trump. 

“The important factor is senior staff, and Chris in my experience is a pro and understands the role of the RNC in the presidential cycle,” he added. “From there, it is the responsibility of the Executive Committee and the Budget Committee to ensure that the spending is appropriate.”

It’s unclear when exactly the RNC would take a vote on appointing Whatley. McDaniel is expected to remain on as chair through the South Carolina primary Feb. 24, and the committee would have to call a meeting to vote on her replacement if they are to do it before a scheduled summer gathering.

LaCivita’s installation gives Trump a trusted aide to oversee operations at the RNC in the meantime.

Whatley’s most immediate challenge will likely be revamping the party’s fundraising efforts, which lagged far behind the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in recent months.

Federal Election Commission filings showed the DNC had nearly three times as much cash on hand at the end of 2023 compared to the RNC, with the Republican committee posting its worst fundraising year in a decade.

“He’ll hit the ground running, and this sort of lead up time allows him to do that, but you still have the larger issue of Trump,” Heye said “We’ve learned you serve at the pleasure of Trump. And Trump is a very enthusiastic backer until he’s not.”

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