NeverTrump forces pushed Thursday to allow a “conscience clause” at next week’s Republican National Convention, potentially freeing delegates to vote for whomever they wished in a move that could thwart the first-ballot nomination that Trump is widely expected to get.
Their proposal to the convention rules committee was expected to eventually fail, but prompted behind-the-scenes negotiations through the day.
Others, led by former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a backer of former Trump rival Ted Cruz, were inching away from the NeverTrump movement, instead reportedly trying to craft a deal that would make the 2020 GOP primaries easier for a conservative such as Cruz to win.
Cuccinelli was reportedly urging some primaries be closed to independent voters – who would be less inclined to back a staunch conservative – but party officials were not enthusiastic.
Months ago, changes in the rules were seen by Trump opponents as their best way to topple the party’s front-runner. Cruz’s forces pushed hard for sympathetic delegates who were bound to Trump but who would abandon him should the rules change or a second ballot be needed.
But a defeated Cruz left the race in May, and Republican officials have since pushed hard to unify the party.
Now is the time to stand united as Republicans. Now is the time to stop Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump.
Republican Chairman Reince Priebus
They believe they have enough convention votes to squelch any uprising, and have been waging a vigorous behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to squelch the whole NeverTrump movement.
John Ryder, the party’s general counsel, told delegates the law binds them to the candidates their voters and state parties selected. Party leaders argue the politics, saying a push against Trump would be lethal in a year when Republicans have a decent shot at winning the White House.
Trump has 1,543 delegates pledged to vote for him on the first ballot, well above the 1,237 needed to win. The NeverTrump forces claim that if everyone were free to vote their consciences on the first ballot, Trump would drop to about 900.
Trouble is, they have no replacement for Trump, and they risk overturning the will of the 13.3 million people who voted for Trump this year.
No prominent Republican has come forward as an alternative. Cruz has not endorsed Trump, but will speak at the convention. Trump promised him during a private meeting last week that Cruz would have a say in judicial policy.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio plans to be in Cleveland most of next week, but has no plans to attend the convention. Nor has he shown any interest in relaunching his campaign. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is not attending, as he seeks re-election to the Senate.
None is close to Trump’s delegate strength.
Ted Cruz wound up with 559 convention delegates; Rubio, 165; and Kasich, 161.
“If anyone but Trump won, he’d have a legitimate claim to say he was robbed,” said Morton Blackwell, a veteran Virginia GOP committeeman who’s been to every rules committee meeting since 1972.
To unbind the delegates “would be saying I’m so omnipotent and I’m so wise, I’m going to substitute my judgment for that of the voters of my state,” said Steve Duprey, a rules committee member from New Hampshire who is close to GOP leadership. “We do that and all we need is to add a smoke-filled room.”
Chairman Reince Priebus, who was in private talks with the dissidents Thursday, made clear the need for a unified front when the Republican National Committee, the party’s governing board, met Wednesday for its summer meeting.
The 112-member rules committee, one man and one woman from each state, territory and the District of Columbia, are regarded as mostly Priebus loyalists.
It would take 28 members to advance a minority report endorsing the vote of conscience. Led by Kendal Unruh, a delegate from Colorado, it’s backed by a series of new organizations with names such as Free the Delegates. The report would free delegates to vote however they wished, in effect unbinding them from any state or party requirements.
Even if her team gets convention floor action, their bid would then have to survive a series of procedural steps. The full convention could wind up voting on their plan next week, but the chances of succeeding are dim. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, said Thursday he’s not worried.
It would take 1,237 convention delegate votes to approve a change. The fear among the party insiders is that a floor fight would dominate coverage of the convention all day, reaffirming the notion that Republicans are only reluctantly embracing Trump.
That image would be a sour opening to a convention in need of enthusiasm and momentum
“With Cruz, you were 99 percent sure where he was coming from,” said Saul Anuzis, a Michigan committeeman who ran Cruz’s campaign in his state. “With Trump, you don’t know. But he’s taking some steps.”
While skeptics remain wary, all that, plus a fervent desire to defeat Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, are enough to quash serious talk of a coup. Henry Barbour, a Mississippi committeeman who has been a fierce Trump critic, was wearing a small Trump pin.
He didn’t want to elaborate. “We’re here to nominate Donald Trump. That’s my statement,” the usually talkative Barbour said.