Last chance for Never Trump: What to watch for this week in Cleveland

Posted at 10:22 PM, Jul 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-10 22:22:18-04

WASHINGTON — Republican Party leaders, donors and important delegates will flock to Cleveland this week for a series of meetings and negotiations that will determine whether or not Donald Trump can be stopped.

The anti-Trump forces will make their last stand — fighting to alter party rules that would free up delegates bound to Trump and potentially block the presumptive presidential nominee from actually winning the nomination.

The long-shot challenge will also be the first major test for the somewhat tenuous alliance for Trump and Republican Party loyalists led by chairman Reince Priebus.

GOP leaders will also hash out the party’s platform. This year has seen Trump go against party orthodoxy on trade and abortion — a key question is how far he wants to go to the and change the platform, and how much of a fight Republican stalwarts put up to maintain hard lines on certain social issues.

Here’s what to watch for in Cleveland this week:

1. Can never-Trump forces free the delegates?

This will likely be the final chance for Trump opponents to stop the New York billionaire. They will try and convince a majority of the Rules Committee to adopt a proposal to allow delegates to vote their “conscience” and break from primary results supporting Trump.

Colorado delegate Kendal Unruh has led the effort to break delegates free from election results supporting Trump and supporters say they have raised millions of dollars to hire a team of delegate “whips” who will fan out across the convention floor and ensure they have enough delegates supporting them.

This week, Unruh and her allies will need the support of 57 members of the convention Rules Committee to vote for her version of the rules to make it the recommendation on the floor, or 28 to get what’s called a minority report in front of the full convention.

Either plan would then need to be adopted next week by the full convention.

“I don’t think people should be scared of the notion that it’s going to be chaos. It’s not going to be chaos any more than the 1860 convention that nominated Lincoln,” anti-Trump conservative Bill Kristol said on a conference call with Unruh’s group last week. “It’s unusual, but this is an unusual year with unusual circumstances.”

Unruh and her team hosted one final conference call Sunday night. Perhaps as a reflection of the grass-roots nature of this latest effort, the call devolved into a cacophony of unmuted lines after about a half hour, as Unruh ended the formal portion of the call but activists and delegates aired out their many questions.

Unruh said she expects a vote Friday on their proposal to release the delegates, the group is also pushing for voting in a vice presidential pick separate from Trump’s — part of a broader package they’re coining the “Conscience Agenda.”

Dane Waters, co-founder of Delegates Unbound, an affiliated group organizing a whip operation for the convention, dismissed skeptics in the Republican National Committee, Trump campaign and the press.

“You never disclose the size of your army before you go into battle,” Waters said. “I have absolutely no doubt in my mind there are enough delegates supporting this that Donald Trump will not be the nominee on the first ballot.”

The group was bullish heading into the week’s events. Jace Laquerre, a 17-year-old Republican delegate from Vermont, said on the call that the Trump campaign tried to unseat him through a credentials challenge but failed because they missed the party deadline.

“In typical Trump campaign fashion, they were disorganized, they filed it a day late,” Laquerre said.

2. Can the party establishment maintain order?

The flip side of the delegate insurrection question is whether the somewhat odd union of the Trump campaign and the Republican Party staff can squash the delegate uprising before it has a chance to draw the focus away from the coronation of Trump.

The Rules Committee is stocked with long-time movers and shakers in the GOP, who fear that, regardless of Trump’s controversial moments, any appearance of trying to undo the will of voters would tear the party apart. They’ll use their influence to try to block any uprising, and they have the experience with these gatherings to move the party’s machinery behind the scenes.

RNC loyalist and Trump supporter Randy Evans sounded an alarm bell earlier in the week, saying that Trump supporters had only marshaled the support of 888 delegates to block any uprising — well short of the minimum 1,237 they would need should an anti-Trump option reach the floor next week.

Rules Committee members Solomon Yue, of Oregon, and Bruce Ash, of Arizona, are looking to minimize any contention in the rules development process. Yue has sponsored an amendment before the GOP standing committee to prevent any rules changes from going into effect until after the convention’s end, meaning any changes wouldn’t impact the Trump nomination, and Ash has sponsored one that would solidify a part of the rules requiring a candidate win the majority of delegates in eight states to qualify for nomination.

3. Whose trade platform wins out?

Trump has propelled his campaign by tapping into angst in blue collar America, and has heavily criticized free trade deals as taking away American livelihoods. His position is so different from the typical GOP line that during one of his economic speeches, reliable Republican backer and business lobby heavyweight the U.S. Chamber of Commerce tweeted point-by-point refutations of his policies.

The 2012 GOP platform includes a traditionally Republican position on trade. “International trade is crucial for our economy. It means more American jobs, higher wages, and a better standard of living,” it read. “The Free Trade Agreements negotiated with friendly democracies since President Reagan’s trailblazing pact with Israel in 1985 facilitated the creation of nearly 10 million jobs supported by our exports.”

But Trump has pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, saying in a recent speech: “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. … Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very, very wealthy.”

The Platform Committee consists of 112 delegates, two from each state and territory, and a subcommittee of that group will be tasked with writing the party’s language on commerce and trade.

Whether the platform looks more like Trump or more like the GOP’s traditional position will be an important test case on how ready the party’s elite is to embrace Trump’s policies and his energized base.

4. Will GOP change its stance on social issues?

While trade is the clearest example of Trump’s break from the party orthodoxy, there are plenty of areas of the platform where the presumptive nominee has gotten both to the left and the right of the 2012 GOP platform.

On the issue of LGBT rights and abortion, Trump has seemingly broken away from planks that call for a constitutional amendment declaring marriage as between one man and one woman and a protection of human life plank that does not explicitly embrace exceptions such as life of the mother or rape or incest.

Trump has said he would be open to such exceptions, and made comments about being a candidate protective of LGBT Americans. He has not spoken in favor of amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, conservatives working to maintain the platform line on these issues say they have spoken with the Trump campaign and feel comfortable that Trump’s surrogates will not try to substantially change the party position.

The mogul has also made some comments about gun control that have left his position murky. While he calls himself a proud defender of the Second Amendment, he has also expressed openness to barring suspected terrorists from getting guns, saying he would discuss the idea with the National Rifle Association.

But there are also areas where Trump may pull the party to the right. On Israel, for example, Trump’s advisers have signaled an openness to move away from language supporting a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians, favoring instead a position of backing whatever the Israeli government policy is. Both parties have included support of a two-state solution in their party platforms for more than a decade, however, in an effort to reflect U.S. policy and keep Israel a seemingly nonpartisan issue.

5. Inside the Party Fighting

The Republican National Committee — the very group that makes up the party — is nothing if not an insiders’ club. It’s 168 members, selected by small groups of party activists, who are rarely thrust into the national spotlight with quite the ardor of the 2016 cycle.

In one sign of how much interest there is, the RNC was forced to set up separate media-watching rooms for rules and platform committee meetings.

Priebus’ team is aiming for quiet and smooth — two things which are rarely associated with Trump — but his band of loyal members, led by RNC general counsel John Ryder and others are largely untouched by Trump, because Trump and his supporters were never a presence inside the small club until this year.

Priebus, who oversaw an “autopsy” of the 2012 election after Mitt Romney’s crippling loss, has been holding the party apparatus together. But one of the biggest questions remains what kind of stamp Trump will leave on the RNC, and whether there will be room for Priebus at the top after November.