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Can Michael Whatley Keep Everyone Happy at the RNC?

He’s ‘a workaholic for the cause,’ a clear-eyed strategist — and a potential bridge between the MAGA crowd and the old GOP establishment.

Former President Donald Trump and North Carolina GOP chair Michael Whatley.
Michael Whatley appears to have risen in Donald Trump’s esteem through his dedication to promoting election integrity — a buzz phrase Trump has championed while making unfounded claims about 2020 fraud. Chris Seward/AP

On Feb. 12, as rumors swirled that Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel would step down, Donald Trump endorsed Michael Whatley, chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, to take over the top job at the RNC — portraying him as a MAGA loyalist through and through. “Michael has been with me from the beginning,” the former president said.

The Democratic National Committee sees Whatley in much the same way, describing him in a statement as a “MAGA Extremist Who Wants To Rip Away Americans’ Basic Freedoms.”

The truth about Whatley, however, is slightly more complicated. He did endorse Trump before he secured the nomination in 2016, and he appears to have risen in Trump’s esteem through his dedication to promoting election integrity — a buzz phrase Trump has championed while making unfounded claims about 2020 fraud. Yet Whatley is also a skilled operator with a substantial pre-Trump career in Republican politics, is known as a clear-eyed and personable strategist and is liked even by Trump-skeptical establishment Republicans.

In short, Whatley — who is expected to be formally chosen as RNC chair this week — may best be understood as a bridge between the new MAGA version of the Republican Party and the old version that Trump vanquished.

Whatley has worked in politics for most of his life, starting in high school as a volunteer for Sen. Jesse Helms. He earned degrees in history and religion before attending law school at Notre Dame. During the 2000 election, he was on George W. Bush’s recount team in Florida. He later served in the Bush administration’s Department of Energy and was chief of staff for Sen. Elizabeth Dole. (Despite multiple requests through the RNC and the North Carolina GOP, I could not reach Whatley for comment.)

According to Federal Election Commission records, he gave money to then-mainstream Republicans Liz Cheney in 2016 and Mitch McConnell in 2014, 2016 and 2019.

During the 2016 campaign, Whatley worked on Trump’s energy platform, according to The Washington Post, and was later on the transition team. For the next few years, he continued lobbying for oil and gas interests as a partner at an energy firm he had co-founded years earlier, HBW Resources, and as executive vice president at the Consumer Energy Alliance, which HBW built.

When Whatley ran for chair of the North Carolina GOP in 2019 — winning narrowly, without receiving an explicit endorsement from Trump — the party was in shambles. Its chair had been arrested in a bribery scandal, and a ballot-harvesting controversy had prompted a special election in a red congressional district.

Not everything has gone perfectly since Whatley took over — last year, as the RNC had one of its worst fundraising years in recent history, North Carolina’s GOP had similar struggles and dipped into its cash reserves to cover expenses — but even some Whatley critics acknowledge that he has also had successes. In 2020, North Carolina was the most competitive battleground state that Trump won. Afterward, Whatley turned his attention to flipping the state Supreme Court, which Republicans accomplished in 2022. The party also locked down supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature.

Allies stress that he always put the party’s success over his personal advancement. “Very rarely do you ever hear the word ‘I’ come out of his mouth,” said national Republican strategist Rob Burgess, who got to know Whatley while working out of the state party office in 2022. “He speaks as ‘we.’”

Whatley, according to Burgess, is the sort of person who sets up folding chairs at the beginning of an event and cleans up trash at the end. Todd Hines, a North Carolina donor whose son is running for Congress, described him as “a workaholic for the cause.” Whatley’s posts on X are full of photos of him cheesing for the camera at county GOP events and unyielding positive adjectives about the Republican Party.

Michael Whatley AP-23160803001446
Whatley, according to one source, is the sort of person who sets up folding chairs at the beginning of an event and cleans up trash at the end. Meg Kinnard/AP

Over the years, Whatley has integrated himself further into Trumpworld. He has appeared side by side with former Rep. Devin Nunes, now CEO of Trump Media & Technology Group, to whom he has made personal donations, according to FEC records. Some of his latest donations were to Rep. Ryan Zinke (interior secretary under Trump) and Rep. Byron Donalds (one of Trump’s staunchest supporters in Congress).

More importantly, Whatley has parroted Trump’s unproven claims of election fraud. On a panel at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, Whatley shared that one of the first things he did as North Carolina GOP chair was to hire 500 lawyers. “Our legal budget was three-quarters of our operating annual budget,” he said. “But it’s worth every penny. … This is gonna have to be part of the Republican establishment going forward.”

Trump took notice. Hines recalled a fundraiser at the former president’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, ahead of the 2022 midterms, where Trump lavished praise on Whatley, who was also attending. “He obviously was on the radar as a person that was being looked at as a serious potential guy in the party that could move up and do something at a national level,” Hines said.

Last year, with Trump’s endorsement, Whatley ran for RNC co-chair and lost. But he got a consolation prize: McDaniel selected him as the RNC’s general counsel, and — while continuing to serve as North Carolina party chair — he has cemented his relationships in Washington with frequent trips to party headquarters.

Last summer, at the state GOP convention, Whatley faced a challenge from businessman John Kane. Kane’s critique of Whatley? He wasn’t doing enough to fulfill the Trumpian priority of securing the vote. “I got into this race largely because of election integrity,” Kane told WRAL last year. “Folks have never been more concerned about the veracity of our elections.”

Trump supported Whatley, and the incumbent chair beat back the challenge. Yet Whatley’s critics in North Carolina still think he remains too closely linked to an older, more moderate version of the Republican Party.

Michele Woodhouse, a western North Carolina district party chair, told me that she dislikes Whatley’s ties to McDaniel and Sen. Thom Tillis, whom state party delegates censured last year for his bipartisan work on gun control, protecting same-sex marriage, and immigration.

Kane described Whatley to me as “probably the most conflict-averse person I’ve ever interacted with.” As for Trump’s endorsement of Whatley’s candidacy for RNC chair, “they clearly didn’t do their due diligence on him,” Kane said. “Why you would go to the trouble to remove Ronna McDaniel — which I think should happen, I think she’s done a horrific job — only to replace her with someone that is, at best, Ronna 2.0, and I think probably worse than that?”

Critics and fans alike agree that Whatley’s tenure may be largely steered by others, including Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law whom Trump has endorsed for RNC co-chair, and Chris LaCivita, a top Trump adviser whom the former president has backed to be chief operating officer.

That could suit Whatley just fine, allowing him to put his head down, operate behind the scenes — and use his history with both the Trumpists and the GOP old guard to try to keep everyone happy. “I’ve seen all types of different chairmen,” says Burgess. “I’ve seen the absent chairman, I’ve seen the micromanager chairman, I’ve seen the fundraising chairman, but I had never really seen an operative chairman, somebody who really, truly understood what it took to run a campaign. That is exactly what Michael Whatley is.”

Mini Racker is a national political reporter who was most recently a staff writer at Time covering campaigns and Congress. She previously worked as a writer and editor at National Journal.