Whisper campaign about RNC chair candidate’s Sikh faith roils campaign

As Harmeet Dhillon seeks the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, opponents have begun raising concerns about her Sikh faith — a development that has left some members of the committee unsettled.

Two supporters of Dhillon, who is challenging incumbent RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, told POLITICO that McDaniel allies have brought up Dhillon’s religious affiliation with them in recent weeks. One of the two said that a fellow RNC committee member, who is openly supporting McDaniel in the race, brought up concerns about Dhillon’s “Sikh faith” during a recent phone conversation. That person was granted anonymity to discuss the matter.

The topic has become so buzzed about that Dhillon herself has been forced to address it publicly, this week retweeting RNC members who condemned those drawing negative attention to her religious affiliation.

McDaniel on Wednesday said she “wholeheartedly condemn[s] religious bigotry in any form.”

“We are the party of faith, family and freedom, and these attacks have no place in our party or our politics,” McDaniel said in a statement to POLITICO. “As a member of a minority faith myself, I would never condone such attacks. I have vowed to run a positive campaign and will continue to do so.”

McDaniel is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As RNC chair, McDaniel has touted coalition-building with a number of minority groups, both ethnic and religious.

The focus on Dhillon’s faith hasn’t just come from people supporting McDaniel. In an email sent to an RNC member on Sunday, a purported supporter of “MyPillow” CEO Mike Lindell, who is also running for committee chair, brought up Dhillon’s religion as an issue. The copy of the email, which was provided to POLITICO with the sender’s name redacted, urged the recipient to support Lindell, an “ardent Christian conservative.”

“She is an Indian Sikh by birth and heritage, Not of Judeo-Christian worldview,” the emailer wrote of Dhillon. “None of these core character positions aligns with the Republican Party Platform, planks, or conservatism in general.”

Reached for comment, Lindell told POLITICO to “shove it.”

In a statement to POLITICO, Dhillon called it “hurtful to learn that a handful of RNC members, in a close race for RNC chair, have chosen to question my fitness to run the RNC by using my devout Sikh faith as a weapon against me.”

“[T]his bigotry plays no part in the decisions of most RNC members, and it will not deter me from doing what is right for our country, and for our party that we love and have pledged to serve,” Dhillon added.

The whisper campaign adds another layer of tension to an increasingly acrimonious RNC race between McDaniel, Trump’s handpicked chair in 2017, and Dhillon, whose firm represents the former president in lawsuits related to the 2020 election. McDaniel is vying for a fourth term in the post and is fending off accusations that the party has stumbled under her stewardship. Though she remains favored to win, she has witnessed notable defections among Republicans from southern states.

In Arkansas last weekend, the state’s executive committee passed a resolution in support of Dhillon’s candidacy, said two people familiar with the vote, but state party officials have so far delayed publicly releasing the document or details surrounding the vote. The Louisiana GOP’s central committee passed a resolution on Saturday urging its three voting members to “pay head to the ‘grassroots’ profound and extreme dissatisfaction with the RNC and Chairwoman McDaniel” and vote to replace her.

An upcoming no-confidence vote is also scheduled in Florida, following similar anti-McDaniel votes in Arizona and Texas. And members of Tennessee’s GOP executive committee last month took a voice vote to overwhelmingly express opposition to McDaniel’s continued leadership, according to a state party official.

On Saturday, Alabama Republican Party leadership voted to release a statement saying they “cannot support or endorse Ronna McDaniel for RNC Chair.” The no-confidence vote, while not unanimous, succeeded despite recent buzz in conservative political circles there about Dhillon’s Sikh faith.

Chris Horn, a GOP commentator in the state and chair of Alabama’s Tennessee Valley Republican Club, is not on the steering committee but has openly supported McDaniel’s reelection. While acknowledging that Dhillon has the right to practice her faith, he defended Republicans who are seeking information about Dhillon’s religious beliefs. He said he is concerned Dhillon would cut existing RNC programs targeting Protestant, Catholic and Jewish voters — something Dhillon has not proposed doing.

“People aren’t bigots because they ask questions,” Horn said. “That’s a legit question: Is the Republican Party, or even the Democratic Party ready for someone of the Sikh faith?

“If someone from another faith wants to be the leader of our party, then you’re going to be the leader of tens of millions of Christians. And there’s not been any conversation about that at all,” Horn added. “That’s just the fact of the matter.”

An RNC member from the Midwest supporting Dhillon, who was granted anonymity in order to minimize growing tensions within the committee, said during a phone conversation last week that another member who is involved in RNC faith outreach efforts reported being “concerned about the future of some of the faith engagement in the RNC because of Harmeet’s Sikh faith.”

The Midwest member, who found the remark “incredibly disturbing,” said the phone call was originally unrelated to the chairman’s race and was not part of a vote-whipping effort, but that the other member eventually brought up Dhillon’s faith unprompted.

Dhillon has not shied away from her religion. She made a high-profile appearance at the Republican convention in 2016 during which she delivered a Sikh prayer, and has framed herself as being at the vanguard of a more inclusive GOP. A prominent San Francisco attorney, she has also spotlighted her work on religious liberty cases benefitting conservative Christians, such as successfully challenging California’s pandemic rules prohibiting church gatherings.

Her supporters decried what they called attackson a woman whose Sikh immigrant family sought a better life in the United States after leaving India.

“The last thing I want to see is anyone attacked for their faith,” said Solomon Yue, the RNC committeeman from Oregon, whose Christian family fled communist China in 1980. “And now my own party, a fellow RNC member, has attacked an Asian American running for RNC chairman. This is totally unacceptable in my book. If anybody still believes in freedom and First Amendment rights, they’ve got to stand up and talk about this and stop it.”

Yue is one of only a few Dhillon supporters to speak publicly about the issue. Some members who were disturbed by reports that Dhillon’s faith was being scrutinized were worried that the surfacing of the whisper campaign would portray the Republican Party as bigoted.

While McDaniel has boasted support from an overwhelming majority of the RNC’s 168 members — releasing a letter in December signed by 107 members who were backing her — Dhillon’s allies say McDaniel’s support has slipped.

McDaniel, Dhillon and possibly Lindell are set to participate in two candidate forums in Dana Point, Calif. next week ahead of the leadership election, though the events are open only to RNC members and their proxies.


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