Anti-Trump zealots fantasizing about dumping Donald Trump at the national convention in Cleveland couldn’t have asked for riper conditions: Trump is historically unpopular. He’s ripping apart traditional Republican alliances. He’s running an error-prone, poorly funded campaign. GOP leaders can’t stomach his candidacy.
There’s one insurmountable problem: Most of the people who could actually stop Trump from taking control of the party — the 2,472 convention delegates — won’t even consider it.
Despite vehement and high-minded exhortations from high-profile party figures — from Mitt Romney to Lindsey Graham — and conservative pundits such as Erick Erickson and Bill Kristol, delegates have largely been unmoved, or have even dug in behind their presumptive nominee.
That’s because convention delegates are not typical Republicans, GOP insiders say. Some are everyday, local Republican officials more interested in the convention experience than a political coup. Many are Trump backers brought into the political fold by the mogul. Others have been swept into national politics precisely to snub the GOP establishment. And others still are susceptible to that same establishment’s pressure to avoid a messy convention.
“I don’t believe most delegates have the stomach to turn the national convention into a political war zone by attempting to deny Trump the nomination,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican strategist and former chairman of the Colorado GOP. “Remember, the vast majority of these folks are not political professionals; they have personal and professional lives way beyond politics. And while they clearly have a deep political interest and record of activism, they don’t want to be directly involved in this anti-Trump drama.”
These dynamics have left anti-Trump activists frustrated and stalled. Only a handful of convention delegates have publicly declared their intent to take on Trump in Cleveland. Dozens of others have told POLITICO they’ll forcefully reject efforts to thwart Trump’s nomination. Their main reason: He won more votes than any of his rivals — more than 13 million — and played by the rules in doing it.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to go to Cleveland and vote to shred their votes,” said Jordan Ross, a delegate from Nevada and a member of the powerful Rules Committee, where a small band of anti-Trump delegates is struggling to mount a last stand.
“We should never circumvent what the voters want,” added John Cabello, a delegate from Illinois and another member of the committee.
Those looking to dump Trump note that he actually earned less than half of all primary votes cast, but he won more contests and benefited from rules that deliver a disproportionate number of delegates to primary winners. What’s really killing the anti-Trump efforts, they argue, is a lack of a serious alternative.
Though Romney has opposed Trump’s candidacy, he’s stopped short of offering himself as an alternative. Likewise, Trump’s runner-up, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, has kept his head down since dropping out of the race in May. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has also declined to lead the effort, despite subtly nudging delegates to “vote their conscience” at the convention, code for an effort aimed at breaking from Trump.
“The fact that no major opposition has appeared is what I think is killing and ultimately buries the effort,” said one anti-Trump delegate who supported Cruz during the primary.
Added an adviser to one of Trump’s primary rivals, “The movement to depose Trump was always doomed to fail. Like it or not, millions voted to make him the nominee, and an effort to use the rules process in some arcane way to deny the will of the voters is seen as a technical dodge, hampered further by the fact that there’s been no viable third option presented.”
Stuart Stevens, a top strategist on Romney’s 2012 campaign, said Romney could never have been that alternative — only Cruz could have filled the role.
“I never understood why this would go to someone from the outside. The guy that came in second would and should be the person who would be the logical [choice],” Stevens said. “You look at Trump as someone who’s sort of like an Olympic medalist and someone’s disqualified at the top. It goes to the person in second.”
While anti-Trump activists struggle to gain momentum, they haven’t gotten much help from party leaders who, while distancing themselves from Trump, have taken no action.
GOP strategists and veteran party insiders say it’s easier for leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to keep Trump at arm’s length or even turn their backs on him, like the growing list of party stalwarts who won’t attend the convention. These leaders don’t face the same pressures delegates do, they note. They can shun Trump without repercussion — and it may even be smart politics to do so.
“Trump was in NH [Thursday] and not one high ranking elected official or candidate attended the event – not Kelly Ayotte, not Rep. Frank Guinta, none of the four gubernatorial candidates or any of the other congressional candidates, not the speaker of the NH house, not the president of the state senate,” said Fergus Cullen, a former state party chairman, in an email. “They voted with their feet. No one wants a photo of them with Trump.”
Many delegates, though, were elected precisely to support Trump, and even if they find him distasteful, they recognize him as an outgrowth of frustration with stereotypical politicians.
“The closer you get to the establishment, the less support you’ll find for Trump, and that includes Republican leaders,” said Timmy Teepell, a GOP strategist and longtime adviser to former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. “But when you look at the disaffected voters and delegates who want to kick the establishment in the nuts, his support is pretty strong.”
Those delegates who don’t back Trump still have to navigate pressure from the Trump campaign and their voters back home, as well as the weight of the Republican National Committee, which declared Trump the presumptive GOP nominee in May and has moved to consolidate the party behind him.
“I think what you are seeing is really a growing understanding of and acceptance of political reality,” said Thomas Rath, a New Hampshire operative who supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign. “Donald Trump is going to be the nominee. Efforts to frustrate that are not going to work.”
Cullen, the former New Hampshire GOP chairman, noted that many anti-Trump delegates have already bowed out of the convention, further tilting the attendees toward the mogul. It would take an implosion of enormous magnitude to change the outcome, added Stevens. And even that could fall short.
“I can’t think of a scenario,” said Trump-backing Texas delegate Toni Anne Dashiell, “that would make me change my mind.”
ourtesy KYLE CHENEY