One week out from a highly contested vote to determine who will head the Republican National Committee, allies of incumbent GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel are engaging in 'religious bigotry' by targeting challenger Harmeet Dhillon's faith, according to RNC members and other sources who spoke to Fox News Digital.
Whispers that Dhillon's opponents are raising concerns about her being a Sikh of Indian heritage have quietly rocked the RNC chair race behind the scenes in recent weeks. Now, some RNC members have decided to speak out on the record for the first time, describing themselves as frustrated and disappointed with the focus on Dhillon's religious beliefs.
Lori Hinz, an RNC committeewoman from North Dakota, on Thursday night sent an email obtained by Fox News Digital to all 168 members of the RNC detailing how McDaniel supporters are raising Dhillon's religion in conversations.
'I'm sure many of you have read the stories or heard about the religious bigotry being pushed among our committee in order to disparage and discredit one of our own, my friend, Harmeet Dhillon,' Hinz wrote. 'This has been weighing on me for three weeks, and after praying about it, I decided I wanted to address it directly with you because I am one of the people who was targeted by Ronna McDaniel's Whip Team with religious bigotry toward Harmeet.'
Hinz, who supports Dhillon for chair, explained that race came up during a phone call Dec. 28 with Tamara Scott, a committeewoman from Iowa who chairs the RNC's Faith Advisory Board and backs McDaniel.
According to Hinz, Scott said she and others at the RNC were 'worried the gains made by the Faith Advisory Board would be in jeopardy should Harmeet Dhillon win the RNC Chair race.' Hinz then asked why she would feel that way, to which Scott replied, 'Because of Harmeet's Sikh beliefs — she is not a Christian.'
'I was shocked, disappointed and frankly disgusted that someone was willing to use bigotry as a tactic to whip votes for their preferred candidate,' Hinz wrote. 'Here she is telling me that Harmeet Dhillon is unqualified to lead the RNC due to her religious beliefs?'
Hinz added that she admired Scott, hopes she adjusts her style of whipping votes and said she cares about Dhillon's leadership abilities but not her religious beliefs. To become chair, a candidate needs a majority of support, or at least 85 votes, among the RNC's 168 members.
In a statement to Fox News Digital, McDaniel condemned bigotry, noting she's a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and called for party unity.
'I wholeheartedly condemn religious bigotry in any form,' McDaniel said. 'We are the party of faith, family and freedom, and these attacks have no place in our party or our politics. 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.'
In an email to Fox News Digital, Hinz explained that she first tried to speak to Scott about this issue before sending the email to her colleagues in an effort to 'seek reconciliation.'
'Religious liberty is the bedrock of our founding fathers' vision for America,' Hinz said. 'Our United States Constitution and our Republican platform allow Harmeet and me and Tamara to practice our respective religions as we choose.'
Hinz said she was frustrated with McDaniel and RNC members for denying that any targeting of Dhillon's faith was taking place. She said MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who is also running for committee chair, was 'unfairly taking fire' for a tactic that 'originated with Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel's Whip Team, period.'
Scott is not a member of McDaniel's Whip team, according to a GOP source close to the chairwoman. But recent reports have said Lindell supporters are also targeting Dhillon's religious beliefs.
When reached for comment, Scott told Fox News Digital she was saddened by accusations of bigotry leveled against her.
'It's unfortunate and truly hurtful to hear that a fellow RNC member would misuse a private conversation and completely twist it against me for personal or political gain,' Scott said. 'As chair of the RNC Faith Advisory Board, I am proud to have led the charge, alongside fellow RNC members, to engage with voters from all faiths and religions.
'Ronna McDaniel has been swift in condemning any tactics of bias, bigotry or disparagement toward committee members,' she continued. 'I wish Harmeet Dhillon would do the same.'
Beyond the phone call between Hinz and Scott, there have been other instances of McDaniel supporters focusing on Dhillon's faith as a factor in the increasingly heated campaign.
In Alabama, Chris Horn, a GOP commentator and chair of Alabama’s Tennessee Valley Republican Club, has been asking questions about Dhillon's faith and sending around a clip of Dhillon leading a Sikh prayer at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
According to a longtime north Alabama GOP operative who supports Dhillon, Horn began disseminating the clip and the fact that Dhillon is a Sikh at the request of his fiancée, an RNC staffer who worked for McDaniel in the past.
However, in an interview with Fox News Digital, Horn adamantly denied being prompted by anyone, including his fiancée, to ask what he described as legitimate questions and 'due diligence' about someone vying to be the Republican Party's next leader.
'It's not a bigoted approach when people don't know about someone or something and ask questions,' he said. 'If you're a Sikh, OK, let me find out.'
Horn explained he and other Republicans in the South didn't know Dhillon, an attorney and a former Trump campaign adviser from California, so they wanted to find out more information, such as whether she's done outreach to minority communities. One of the key questions they had concerned her faith.
'I dare defend my right to ask and answer questions that all Americans want to know,' he said. 'What do you believe, and how does that impact my freedom, family and faith here and around the world?'
Horn said the GOP is the party of faith and freedom but also of 'Judeo-Christian values,' arguing that Sikhs are persecuting Christians in India. He called on Dhillon to disavow and separate herself from such alleged persecution.
The north Alabama operative, a member of the state's GOP, described the focus on Dhillon's faith as a 'nothingburger,' saying people just want results and Dhillon is the one to deliver them.
'Harmeet will operate the RNC accordingly and in compliance with the Republican platform,' the source said. 'Ronna doesn't do that. There's no acknowledgment of the platform whatsoever.'
The Alabama Republican Party said in a recent statement it 'cannot support or endorse Ronna McDaniel for RNC chair and declare our vote of no-confidence in her leadership.'
A few other state parties have done the same, along with dozens of major donors announcing support for Dhillon.
McDaniel has faced growing backlash for leading a disappointing performance in the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans won fewer seats in Congress than many experts predicted, leading voices within the GOP to call for a change in party leadership.
Under her leadership, Republicans also lost control of the House in 2018 and both the White House and Senate in 2020.
On Tuesday, McDaniel's re-election campaign released a letter signed by over 150 major Republican donors endorsing her.
McDaniel's re-election campaign spokesperson Emma Vaughn said last week in a statement that RNC members support McDaniel 'because of her unprecedented investments in the grassroots, election integrity and minority communities and for taking on Big Tech and the biased Commission on Presidential Debates.'
Dhillon recently told Fox News Digital the RNC is 'in a difficult situation,' which she blamed on leadership for refusing 'to take responsibility for failures.'
Last month, 107 RNC members signed a letter endorsing McDaniel, far more support than she needs to win. It's unclear where the tally currently stands. The party will choose its leader at its winter meetings next week.
According to one veteran RNC member from Oregon, the focus on Dhillon's faith is a signal that the party needs a new direction.
'As the only Republican National committeeman who was born in communist China, [which] persecuted my Christian faith during Mao's Cultural Revolution before finding freedom in America, it is gut-wrenching to watch a fellow immigrant and Asian-American RNC member, Harmeet Dhillon, attacked for her faith,' Solomon Yue told Fox News Digital. 'The irony is that Harmeet has been defending civil rights in court as a constitutional lawyer.
'To keep this republic,' he continued, 'we must demonstrate our ability to defend religious liberty under the First Amendment by rejecting religious bigotry and replacing the current RNC chair.'