Hollywood, Fla. — A few thoughts on the RNC Spring meeting here, where I’ve spent my past two days:
‐This week’s meeting was as much about the impression conveyed on the outside as about what was actually accomplished. With John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump’s campaign team in attendance, and the prospect that members might recommend a change to the rules at the convention, the often-dry quarterly meeting drew dozens of reporters. The result: 168 members who were hyperconscious of the fact that they were being watched. There was a noticeable effort to push back on the idea that this committee represented the “establishment” or the “party elite,” and to refute the notion propagated by Trump and his supporters that the system is in some way “rigged” against him.
“The only thing I cared about was having a hearing and debate the way we’ve done since I was first elected in 2010, and we had that,” says Rules Committee chairman Bruce Ash of Arizona. “It was awesome that probably millions of people were watching on TV as it was happening. There’s no smoke in the room, there’s nobody who was pointing a finger across the table saying, ‘We want Harvey. Harvey’s our guy.’ This was in the wide open, light of day with the ability to have millions of people see what we were talking about. That’s a great thing,”
The much hyped Rules Committee meeting was a public effort to declare that two and a half months before the convention, with no clear idea of who the nominee will be, it was not the moment to be changing the rules. RNC staffers took great pride in taunting the 60 some-odd reporters in the back of the room who had turned up to watch the anti-climactic show.
‐The public message was party unity: “It is essential to victory in November that we all support our candidate,” RNC chairman Reince Preibus told members at the general session Friday morning. “This goes for everyone, whether you’re a county party chairman, an RNC member, or a presidential candidate. Politics is a team sport and we can’t win unless we rally around whoever becomes our nominee. I want to prove the doubters wrong and show that Republicans are going to stand side by side with one another stronger than ever before.”
Priebus’s public pleas to the contrary, there are clearly lingering irritations elsewhere. As he spoke, Katie Packer, the chair of the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, was holding a session with reporters downstairs in the hotel. Kasich and Cruz spent Wednesday sniping at each other. And some of the Trump campaign’s tactics have rubbed people the wrong way.
“I grabbed Dr. Carson and I told him I thought that Trump owed us an apology and I expected that,” says Ross Little, the committeeman from Louisiana. Little is a Cruz supporter who ran the senator’s Louisiana operation, but his gripe was about the Trump campaign’s accusations that the Louisiana GOP had rigged the system because Cruz wound up with an extra delegate there despite losing the primary. Trump, he said, should apologize to Louisiana “and to Colorado and other states that they’re making similar allegations of fixing and stealing and cheating. And [Carson] said, ‘Well in Colorado, nobody voted.’ I said, ‘In Colorado they had over 60,000 people that voted!’ He said, ‘Well, not at this thing.’ I said, ‘In the United States Senate there’s only 100 senators!’ And it was like it went over his head. Is he really stupid? Is he ignorant? Or is he a brain surgeon? You know, what is going on here? How do we communicate with people who otherwise you would think are smart, but are not? How do I deal with that?
‐All three campaigns showed up to press their case with members. But the Cruz campaign seemed to best take advantage of the media-heavy environment — of the three campaigns, their push was the most visible. Campaign manager Jeff Roe held a gaggle with reporters after he and his team briefed RNC members Wednesday morning. Cruz held a press conference later. And he made a great show of moving from meeting to meeting with members that day, marching through the hotel trailed by an intimidating, hard-to-miss entourage of top campaign staffers. His team was highly visible throughout the hotel, working members and press alike. Even after Cruz left, Saul Anuzis, who is organizing Cruz’s delegate strategy, was a almost constantly visible presence in and outside meetings, attending everything and always talking to someone.
The Kasich campaign’s efforts seemed to take place more behind the scenes, members said. Kasich himself spoke to members and held a press conference, but he was a less visible presence on Wednesday. Mike Biundo, who is running his delegate strategy, was often present, and campaign John Weaver could be seen moving through the hotel during the day on Thursday. But their efforts were less conspicuous, in part, perhaps, because the argument Kasich’s team is making is a more “esoteric” one, as Ohio GOP Chairman and staunch Kasich backer Matt Borges puts it. Kasich’s team sees his path opening up if the convention goes to a third or fourth ballot. “We’ve just got to ask folks to hang in there,” Borges says.
Trump’s campaign team also showed up, though the candidate himself did not make an appearance. Ben Carson was the campaign’s top surrogate in Trump’s absence. And Paul Manafort, Rick Wiley, and Ed Brookover addressed an overflowing room of members and guests Thursday afternoon. (Some members said they stepped outside at a certain point because it was simply too hot and crowded to stay in the room.) Their message: Having brought in a more professional campaign team, Trump himself is becoming a more professional candidate.
“He’s trying to moderate,” Carson told reporters of Trump. “He’s getting better. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
It was not clear that Trump had sent the most effective surrogates. Florida governor Rick Scott, who endorsed Trump, addressed members at a luncheon Thursday, but did not take the opportunity to talk up his guy. At a press conference afterward, Scott was more focused on boosting his home state, and declined to engage with reporters on why he had not used his time to help Trump. Asked why he was chosen to attend, Carson was blunt: “I didn’t ask to come,” he told reporters. “They asked me.”