Unconventional has been reporting for some time now on the concept of disgruntled Republicans dumping presumptive nominee Donald Trump at the Republican convention that begins in Cleveland on July 18. Last month, we dug deep into the GOP rule book — and the party’s history — to figure out whether deep-sixing the Manhattan mogul is even possible at this point. (Short answer: It is.) And later, we explained what would have to happen between now and Cleveland to convince Republicans to go through with it.
But there were never any actual delegates, you know, plotting to wrest the nomination away Trump at the convention. It was all just speculation.
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that dozens of Republican convention delegates had hatched “a new plan” to block Trump in Cleveland — a plan, according to the Post, that amounted to “the most organized effort so far to stop the businessman from becoming the GOP presidential nominee.”
At the time, the latest Dump Trump cabal was fairly small. Roughly 30 delegates from 15 states participated in a conference call Thursday night, with Republicans from Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana and Washington signing on as regional coordinators. A Christian schoolteacher and rules committee member from Colorado named Kendal Unruh — a former Ted Cruz supporter — was leading the charge.
Since then, however, Unruh’s campaign appears to have picked up steam. A second conference call on Sunday night attracted an alleged 1,000 participants. Unruh & Co. claimed that “several hundred delegates and alternates” had now rallied to the cause. The group announced plans raise money for staff and a possible legal defense fund. And they even gave themselves a name: Free the Delegates.
As regular Unconventional readers know, there is a convincing case to be made that Republican convention delegates are already technically free to nominate whomever they want in Cleveland, despite the impression that they are bound by the results of the primary votes in each state. Every convention votes on its own rules, so if this year’s GOP delegates wanted to unbind themselves, the argument goes, nothing would stop them. Numerous judicial rulings have found that even state laws, which purport to bind approximately one-third of the delegates, cannot govern the internal affairs of a national political party — such as how delegates vote at a convention.
Still, the perception is that delegates would be breaking the rules if they were to vote against Trump in Cleveland. That’s where Free the Delegates comes in. On Sunday’s call, Unruh told participants that she is “planning to propose adding a ‘conscience clause’ to the convention’s rules so that there is no confusion about what delegates can do.” Such a clause would say that every delegate is free to vote his or her conscience on the first ballot — even if state laws or party rules say otherwise.
The idea of a conscience clause seemed to get a boost — at least in the eyes of people like Unruh — when House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has both endorsed and frequently criticized Trump, said on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” that “the last thing I would do is tell anybody to do something that’s contrary to their conscience.”
“It is not my job to tell delegates what to do, what not to do or to weigh in on things like that,” Ryan explained. “They write the rules. They make their decisions.”
“Paul Ryan signed our permission slip,” Unruh told the Post.
It’s worth noting that while some of Unruh’s allies backed Cruz during the primaries, Free the Delegates is not organizing on behalf of any particular candidate.
“It’s not an effort for a candidate or against a candidate,” said Eric O’Keefe, a Detroit GOP operative who is a member of the group. “It’s an effort to educate people on what their real authority is and have them get the comfort that they’re not alone.”
Even so, top Republican officials — who worry that disenfranchising Trump voters would hurt the GOP more than Trump himself ever could — reacted harshly over the weekend.
“Donald Trump bested 16 highly qualified candidates and received more primary votes than any candidate in Republican Party history,” Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said in a statement. “All of the discussion about the RNC Rules Committee acting to undermine the presumptive nominee is silly. There is no organized effort, strategy or leader of this so-called movement. It is nothing more than a media creation and a series of tweets.”
“The people have spoken in overwhelming number,” added Iowa state party chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “If they pull off what they say they will, we will not have a party. Period.”
Trump himself weighed in Saturday at his rally in Phoenix, claiming that any move by the delegates to unbind themselves and replace him in Cleveland wouldn’t be “legal.”
“I hear they want to try do something at the convention,” Trump said. “It’s not legal, can’t do it. The Republican National Committee is with me 100 percent. Reince Priebus, a very good guy, he said it’s the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard.”
Trump’s rhetoric aside, what Free the Delegates is proposing is, in fact, legal.
Whether it has a chance of working … well, that’s another story. The odds are steep, but at least one rules committee member tells Unconventional that he thinks the interest is there — and that getting a majority (i.e., 57 members) of the committee to vote for a conscience clause is “definitely doable.”
Stay tuned for more in Wednesday’s Unconventional!