The other GOP fight: Packing the convention rules committee

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz wear "Cowboys for Cruz" T-shirts in the University of Wyoming colors during the Wyoming GOP Convention last week.
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz wear "Cowboys for Cruz" T-shirts in the University of Wyoming colors during the Wyoming GOP Convention last week. AP

Forget, for the moment, the big convention where the roll of the states is called, the delegates wave signs and wear funny hats, and campaign operatives buzz the floor making sure they’ve got the votes.

What matters first are 112 people who have a big say in whom the party nominates as the next president of the United States.

They’re the convention’s rules committee, two members from each state and six other jurisdictions. A week or so before the convention opens, they’ll meet to determine how things will proceed.

They can block someone from being formally considered at the convention. They can make it easier for delegates to ditch their commitments to their candidates.

“Technically, the rules committee can change anything it wants,” said Louis Pope, a veteran rules committee expert from Maryland.

Right now, the committee’s very makeup is a mystery.

Members are now being methodically chosen day by day, in state after state. They’re picked at the end of a lengthy delegate-selection process that involves meetings at middle school cafeterias, Elks lodges or Holiday Inns off interstates across America. This year, they often feature gentle, though hardly subtle, persuasion by supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

This week’s renegades will find themselves up against the same forces that will make it difficult to make big changes for the convention right away: Convention rules committee members are often party stalwarts, more concerned with electability than ideology or die-hard loyalty to a single candidate. They are often the establishment that voters have signaled this year that they dread.

That’s why, at the moment, the committee is not expected to change the controversial Rule 40b. At least not right away. That rule, adopted four years ago, requires a candidate to have majorities of delegates in eight states or jurisdictions in order to be formally nominated.

So far, only Trump and Cruz would qualify. Since they’re likely to have most of this year’s delegates, they’re unlikely to seek a change. Several Republican National Committee members are promoting alternatives, such as no threshold or returning to the five-state minimum that prevailed before 2012.

If no candidate gets a majority on the first ballot, then a majority of the delegates will be free to vote as they choose.

At this point, “the Cruz campaign doesn’t want to see any rules changed on any subject in the middle of the race,” said Lionel Rainey III, a Louisiana Cruz strategist who had run Marco Rubio’s state campaign. The U.S. senator from Florida suspended his effort last month.

Here’s where the convention rules committee might weigh in, a scenario suggested by three current and former members:

After two ballots, the convention is deadlocked. The Republican hierarchy doesn’t want a messy, seemingly endless series of ballots, nor does it want a nominee who appears chosen in a back room by faceless operatives.

So after a second ballot, the convention takes an hourlong break – no more, because anything longer suggests a closed-door deal. In this year of the anti-establishment candidate, that’s poison.

During this break, the rules committee meets and makes changes. It might decide that anyone with a single delegate, or perhaps who can get signatures of majorities from a certain number of states, can be formally nominated.

Not only could Ohio Gov. John Kasich have his hour in the spotlight, but so could Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and others who have suspended their campaigns. A strong showing would illustrate important momentum at a time delegates are searching for a consensus candidate.

Here’s why that’s a plausible scenario: Chances are many committee members will be longtime party officials whose chief goal is to win in November. GOP Chairman Reince Priebus picks the committee’s chairman, though members are chosen by their party’s state convention delegations.

The Cruz forces are pushing hard to make sure the committee is sympathetic to him. He and Trump each got 18 delegates in Louisiana, but one of the rules committee appointees is a Cruz delegate and the other is uncommitted.

In North Dakota last month, Cruz claimed 18 delegates loyal to him, though party officials put the number at 12. Cruz did lose one crucial point: Curly Haugland, a longtime activist who’s known for seeking to make the process more open, was picked as one of the state’s rules members.

Most states will be tough to predict, if only because their processes will take a while. In Massachusetts, the delegation will choose rules committee members in June.

Before the convention votes on a nominee, delegates must sign pledges effectively binding them to the candidates to whom their delegate slots are assigned. Rules committee members, though, can be anyone’s supporters.

Maryland, which holds its primary next Tuesday, illustrates how complex and unpredictable the system can be.

The entire delegation will meet May 21 and pick the rules committee members. They’re not bound by the state’s voting results. So if Trump, the current poll winner, gets all of Maryland’s delegates, Kasich or Cruz could still get a rules member or two – since voters may have elected their supporters.

Sounds like a lot of intrigue. After all, “Technically the rules committee can change anything it wants,” Pope said.

But he also saw little prospect for uprooting the rules at this point. Remember, he said, “The rules committee will be controlled by Trump and Cruz delegates.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid