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Trump’s pick to lead the RNC is facing skepticism from some Republicans

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — In pushing Michael Whatley as the next leader of the Republican National Committee, Donald Trump zeroed in on the North Carolina GOP chairman’s dedication to “election integrity,” baselessly suggesting he would ensure the 2024 race “can’t be stolen.”

Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters in Whatley’s home state would, no doubt, like a word.

Whatley has been accused by some Republicans of essentially manufacturing his win as state party chairman last year following a chaotic vote, which resulted in a legal challenge that offered evidence some ballots were improperly cast. While Whatley and his allies acknowledged that technical problems made voting with the party’s mobile app difficult, they vehemently deny that the irregularities changed the outcome of the contest and note that the lawsuit was dismissed.

But for some conservatives, primed by years of Trump urging vigilance against voter fraud, the episode instilled a suspicion that the party contest was stolen by a Washington Beltway fixture whose work for the George W. Bush administration and as a lobbyist they viewed skeptically.

“I can only conclude two possibilities. One, he felt he needed to cheat to win. Two, he is completely incompetent. Both are disqualifying,” said Whatley’s challenger, John Kane Jr., who described himself as “unquestionably” the true “MAGA candidate” in the contest.

The controversy surrounding Whatley’s election to the GOP’s top political post in North Carolina is one of several emerging signals suggesting challenges ahead. Trump is aiming to wrest control of the RNC by muscling Whatley through in an orchestrated ouster of the organization’s current chair, Ronna McDaniel. But in doing so, he’s elevating someone with a relatively scant national profile and a gilded resume that includes links to establishment figures largely reviled by the hardline activists who are most vocal in supporting Trump.

Whatley, 55, declined through a spokesman to comment for this story. The Trump campaign did not respond to a message.

If Whatley ultimately becomes RNC chair, he would be charged with leading the effort to defeat President Joe Biden at a time when the party is struggling to raise money and navigating a restless far-right flank. To his critics, Whatley represents more of the same at a time when they’re seeking more dramatic change.

‘A complete overhaul’

“We need a complete overhaul of the RNC. Choosing, or anointing, someone that is the male version of Ronna is the exact opposite of what the RNC needs at this time,” said Sigal Chattah, an RNC committeewoman for Nevada who is closely aligned with the group Turning Point, which advocated for McDaniel’s ouster.

Whatley’s allies portray him as a steady hand and strategic thinker with decades of Republican political experience, stretching from the mountains of western North Carolina to the halls of Congress and the executive branch.

A formative political experience came when Whatley was still a sophomore at Watauga High School. He volunteered for the 1984 reelection campaign of Jesse Helms, a hard-edged conservative senator whose crusades against civil rights, art and homosexuality presaged the GOP’s embrace of grievance politics under Trump.

Yet for much of his professional life, Whatley’s political sensibilities appeared to align far more closely with the party’s mainstream and corporate establishment.

He spent much of his 20s as a student earning four degrees, including a law degree, as well as a master’s in theology, from Notre Dame. Later, he clerked for a federal judge in North Carolina before departing for Washington as Bush campaigned for the presidency.

One early assignment dispatched him to Broward County, Florida, where he worked among a team of lawyers on Bush’s behalf to dispute the outcome of the 2000 presidential contest.

“It was really the first time that Republicans got down into the trenches and fought,” Whatley recalled during a 2021 appearance on an election integrity panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “We knew if we were not there, they were going to steal it.”

After the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favor, Whatley landed a job in the Department of Energy, which was he followed by a two-year stint working for Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the North Carolina Republican.

Oil and gas lobbying

Lobbying on behalf of oil and gas giants soon became his calling, however.

He launched his own firm, the Patriot Group, in 2005. But it wasn’t until joining forces with two other oil and gas lobbyists in 2009 that his fortunes precipitously rose. Their firm, HBW Resources (the W stands for Whatley), became a political will-bending force.

HBW became a key proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline. Whatley was also an architect of a federal and state-level campaign that played a pivotal role in stopping a bipartisan push to enact cleaner standards for oil used in the U.S.

The regulations would have drastically curtailed imports of crude extracted from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada — a labor-intensive process that requires so much energy usage that fuels derived from the region are considered among the world’s dirtiest.

But the legislative push collapsed after the campaign amped up pressure in Congress as well as members’ home states.

To advance their aims, Whatley’s firm also established the Consumer Energy Alliance, a nonprofit organization that presented itself as nonpartisan. In reality, the group was supported by some of the world’s biggest oil companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil and British Petroleum, as well as major industrial energy users. The group has been accused of using deceitful tactics to generate support for their efforts, including allegations that they gathered petition signatures under misleading pretenses for local initiatives in Ohio, Wisconsin and South Carolina.

After a major corruption scandal at the North Carolina Republican Party, which saw the party’s former chairman convicted in a bribery scandal, Whatley ran to replace him and stepped down from the nonprofit after he won. He left the firm that he helped found in 2022.

Army of poll watchers

His focus soon turned to “election integrity.” As Trump railed against fraud ahead of the 2020 election, Whatley said he recruited hundreds of lawyers, as well as an army of poll watchers, to fan out across the state. After Trump won the state, he took credit for the effort, claiming that it stopped Democrats from cheating.

“They knew if this happens, we were going to scream bloody murder,” Whatley said in 2021 . “Because we put so much pressure on the system more than a year in advance, it really came down to being a pretty clean election.”

But to Democrats, many of the North Carolina GOP’s tactics are tantamount to voter intimidation or suppression, which they say is ironic in light of Whatley’s own contested election last year, as state party chair.

“The next chair of the Republican Party is running on election integrity. His own election was called into question. And a lot of people in North Carolina don’t think he was elected fair,” said Anderson Clayton, chairwoman of the North Carolina Democratic Party.

As Whatley looks to take the reins of the RNC, which will require approval by the organization’s 168 voting members, much of his success will turn on whether or not he can raise enough money to turn around the organization’s dismal finances. The RNC has been significantly outraised in recent months by the Democratic National Committee, reporting cash reserves of just $8 million at the end of last year, while carrying $1 million in debt.

Art Pope, a North Carolina businessman and major conservative donor, said Whatley was well-equipped to lead the organization. But he wasn’t sure that the underlying dynamics would change.

“When the Republican National Committee was helping with Donald Trump’s legal fees, a lot of people didn’t want to give” for that reason, said Pope. “Anyone who has been, or will be, the Republican National Committee chairperson will have that challenge.”

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