The top ranks of the Republican Party may be coalescing around Donald Trump, but grass-roots conservative activists are still trying to find a way to stop him at the party’s convention in July.
Angered by Trump’s shifting views on taxes, the minimum wage, national security and how little he discusses social issues, conservatives across the country are studying the party rule book for last-ditch moves they could make when the convention begins in Cleveland.
Veteran Republican campaign operatives familiar with convention planning are offering to educate delegates on how they can act as free agents, even if the Republican National Committee insists that delegates adhere to the results of their state primary. Some even talk about convening somewhere other than the convention site.
“I want to call our movement the ‘Make Our Party Great Again’ movement, but many don’t have my warped humor,” said Karen Unruh, a Republican delegate from Colorado, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Trump may hold an insurmountable lead in party delegates, but Unruh said that she and other party activists do not like how he “grabbed the Super Bowl ring and he didn’t finish the game. There’s a team on the field that has plenty of blocks left. We don’t know who our quarterback is going to be, but we’re still on the field to play.”
As Unruh suggests, however, there is no de facto leader – just lots of ideas floating around websites and conservative blogs. The convention rumblings come at the same time that some Republican elites, including 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, are searching for someone to mount a third-party challenge to Trump.
Erick Erickson, a popular conservative blogger and radio talk show host from Atlanta, warned last week on his blog the Resurgent that unless Republican convention delegates stop Trump, “their rendezvous in Cleveland is going to be a ritual mass suicide.”
Erickson said in an interview that most of the concerned Republicans he talks to are focused on finding ways to “unbind” delegates required to vote for the winner of their state. Some favor changing party rules in the week before the convention, although others – including Erickson – argue that the rules allow it.
“Multiple lawyers I know have looked at the rules and say that the delegates can unbind themselves,” Erickson said.
But many senior GOP officials dispute that delegates can be unbound. They also say that it would harm the party to do so and refute the plurality of voters who chose Trump.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has said that party rules require delegates “to be bound to candidates.”
“There’s no way around it,” he said in a recent NBC News interview. “If a delegate is bound to a candidate, even if that delegate decides later, ‘I don’t care, I’m not voting for that person,’ the secretary at the convention will read the roll as if that delegate voted for the person that they’re bound to, period.”
Curly Haugland, a longtime Republican National Committee member from North Dakota, is an outspoken advocate for unbinding delegates. He has long been dismissed by party leaders – one former RNC official said he is on a “watch list of troublemakers” – but Haugland is so devoted to the idea that he is publishing a new e-book, “Unbound,” set for release this week.
“The delegate freedom movement’s alive and well,” Haugland said in an interview. With several states yet to elect their delegations, Haugland is hopeful that “by the time the delegates are seated and ready to vote, 100 percent of them will know they’re free to vote however they want to.”
Dane Waters, who worked on the Bush-Quayle presidential campaigns, said he plans to help distribute Haugland’s book because he believes that party delegates – not RNC officials – ultimately run the party.
“The only authority they have is to cash the paychecks we give to them,” Waters said of Priebus and his staff.
Eric O’Keefe, a longtime conservative activist favoring term limits and changing RNC rules, said that concerns about Trump’s nomination present “a great opportunity to revive the party as an independent institution.”
Delegates sent to a convention “are not agents of the state party and they’re not agents of the state government when they’re convened in Cleveland,” he said.
“What we’re experiencing here is a Priebus-led power grab of the delegates,” O’Keefe added. “The headquarters staff doesn’t trust delegates and it wants to increase its own power. It doesn’t want delegates making the big decisions.”
Guy Short, a Republican delegate from Erie, Colo., would like to reset the party power structure. He will be attending his sixth convention and is assigned to the convention’s rules committee to determine how Trump will be nominated. He plans to propose a “conscience clause” that would allow delegates to become free agents, which could open up the convention to multiple rounds of balloting.
“I do sense that there is going to be support among delegates,” he said. “Is there 50 percent support? That’s a question that remains to be seen.”
Elsewhere, there is talk of skipping the event entirely.
Ian Bayne, a radio talk show host from Bloomington, Ill., helped launch a “Save Our Party” website, which calls on delegates to meet “at an undisclosed location” other than the Quicken Loans Arena hosting the convention “until such a time as we can not be held to a vote for any particular candidate.”
“Our likely nominee has compromised himself so much due to poor campaign practice that alternative action must be debated,” the website says.
While gathered in secret, delegates should “agree upon an acceptable nominee” that would nominate conservative candidates to the Supreme Court and would “serve as a caretaker of our Constitution and our rule of law for a period of 4 years,” the website says.
“I’m representing a group of delegates with different views. Most people say he can’t win,” Bayne said.
What bothers Bayne most is that when he began his activism through the tea party several years ago, “Trump was writing checks to Democrats.”
Wendy Day, a Republican delegate from Michigan who supports Cruz, expresses similar concerns about Trump.
The attempts to unseat Trump are “sporadic and underground,” she said, adding that Trump could help himself by reaching out to conservatives concerned about his positions.
“Donald Trump has an obligation to earn our vote,” she said. “We don’t owe him anything.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Ed O’Keefe, David Weigel