Just as with Britain’s Brexit vote, the smart money has decided that the Never Trump movement among Republican delegates has no chance of succeeding. The Donald has won 1,542 delegates, well above the 1,237 needed to nominate. No major alternative candidate has publicly said he wants to challenge Trump. Many delegates are party regulars who want a quiet life in Cleveland instead of a pitched battle played out on national TV.
And yet, discontent with Trump remains high. He languishes in the polls behind a weak Hillary Clinton, his fundraising numbers are anemic, his campaign shambolic. Despite previously promising to do so, he has refused to release his tax returns while at the same demanding tax returns from those who want to be vetted to be his vice president. Many delegates believe damaging material from his tax returns will leak out of the federal government in October, just as happened with Mitt Romney in the homestretch of the 2012 campaign.
Eric O’Keefe, who is president of a new group called Delegates Unbound, has opened an office in Cleveland and hired 15 “whips” who are contacting delegates. Their pitch is that — contrary to the claims of Republican National Committee officials — Trump’s delegates are not bound to vote for him on the first or second ballot. Curly Haugland, a member of the Republican Party Rules Committee that meets in Cleveland this week, has written a persuasive book, Unbound: The Conscience of a Republican Delegate, arguing that GOP delegates have historically always retained the power to vote their conscience. Some delegates maintain that Trump’s failure to unite the party, run a less gaffe-ridden campaign, and organize grassroots support over the last two months have changed the landscape that delegates face.
The reason is pretty clear: Trump and his allies can play rough. Many pro-Trump state-party leaders have engaged in intimidating tactics to keep delegates in line. Robert Graham, the state GOP chairman in Arizona, forced delegates to sign a pledge of loyalty to Donald Trump. Delegate Lori Hack says that action was improper, and on Monday she will circulate a photo of her tearing up her pledge.
“Duly elected delegates have an obligation to vote their conscience, free of fear and threats,” says Hack. “Chairman Graham is undermining that obligation by withholding credentials from delegates who fail to pledge loyalty to Donald Trump.”
Groups such as O’Keefe’s might be close to a symbolic victory: showing that it’s unconstitutional to bind delegates (only a few states have laws on the books that do so). Federal district judge Robert Payne will rule in the next few days on a lawsuit filed by Beau Correll, a supporter of Ted Cruz’s, who claims that a Virginia state law is improperly requiring him to vote for Donald Trump.
Trump supporters dismiss efforts to bust open rules they say bind delegates to their man on the first ballot. They note that the 112-member Rules Committee of the convention is controlled by Trump forces who will reject any efforts to put forward a “conscience rule allowing delegates not to be bound.”But Unruh notes that if just a quarter of the committee files a minority report, they will be able to force a vote by all the convention delegates on a “conscience” clause. Waters maintains that even without such a vote, delegates have the freedom to voter their conscience. He notes what Paul Ryan, the House speaker who will preside over the convention, told NBC’s Chuck Todd in June: “The last thing I would do is tell anybody to do something that’s contrary to their conscience. . . . I get that this is a very strange situation. He’s a very unique nominee.”
Of course, the strong odds are that Trump is not so unusual a figure that he will inspire a full-fledged delegate revolt. But what if Trump remains behind Hillary even in the wake of the highly damaging FBI report on her “extreme carelessness” in handling national-security secrets? What if he makes yet another mega gaffe in the days leading up to the convention? What if his vice-presidential pick angers delegates more than it pleases them? This election cycle has seen so many surprises and unexpected twists that one would be foolish to rule out that some new ones are just around the corner from Cleveland.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.