With 'free the delegates' rallying cry, upstarts seek to block Trump nomination in Cleveland

As Republicans move closer to their convention in Cleveland next month, a growing faction of delegates is campaigning to block Donald Trump from securing the presidential nomination.

The multi-pronged effort — which includes outreach to individual attendees, national television ads and even a lawsuit — aims at a long-shot goal. They want to allow the 2,472 delegates to vote for whomever they choose instead of casting ballots according to the results of the state primaries and caucuses, in which Trump won the most votes in a crowded field of contenders.

Backers of the block-Trump efforts say such extraordinary measures are necessary in light of Trump’s declining poll numbers, anemic fundraising and penchant for inflammatory rhetoric, all of which, they say, leads to self-inflicted cycles of negative news stories.

And they are buoyed by lingering unease in the GOP about the presumptive nominee. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday found 52% of Republicans weren’t satisfied with Trump.

“The convention is not a coronation. They were never meant to be,” said Steve Lonegan, a New Jersey-based Republican operative who is working with Courageous Conservatives PAC, one of several groups calling to “free the delegates.”

Pointing to Trump’s recent gaffes, Lonegan said “these delegates have an obligation to review all of this.”

The so-called Dump Trump campaign has attracted a surge of media attention, but remains very much an underdog as the convention nears. The grassroots movement requires coordination of several like-minded but underfunded and understaffed camps, identifying and contacting scores of delegates and arguing the merits of a politically fraught position that would essentially invalidate the results of the primary season. 

And organizers have not put forth an alternative candidate for the nomination should Trump falter, leaving delegates with no substitute to rally around.

Still, the fledgling effort is being closely watched by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, which fear any convention chaos could illustrate lack of confidence about the presumptive nominee within his own party, hobbling him as he enters the general election.

Like the earlier delegate scramble between Trump and his rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the Dump Trump movement has thrown into a spotlight the arcane procedures that undergird the nomination process.

In this case, proponents are focusing on whether delegates should be bound to the results of the primaries, in accordance with state laws and party rules. Most state delegations are required to vote according to the results of their primary or caucus on at least the first round of balloting.

Curly Haugland, a GOP party official from North Dakota, has argued for years that convention delegates are, in fact, not bound at all. Haugland’s proposal got little traction in the past, but is now championed by a bloc of Republicans who are calling for delegates to vote freely regardless of primary results

Another faction, led by Colorado delegate Kendal Unruh, is proposing a rule to make clear that delegates have a right to “vote their conscience” without risking sanctions or censure from the national or state party.

The “conscience clause” proposal would first be considered at the convention rules committee, the 112-member body that will meet one week before the nominating proceedings kick off. 

Getting approval from a majority of rules committee members — many of whom are close allies of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus — is a steep climb, but winning a quarter of the committee members would be enough to produce a minority report, which would be presented at the full convention. Delegates would then choose between two competing rules packages.

“Then the question is, who has the majority of the floor?” said Randy Evans, a longtime RNC official from Georgia.

Evans, who chairs the Republican National Lawyers Assn., has been assiduously tracking delegates and their preferences. He predicted Trump-aligned attendees will outnumber those supporting Cruz, who had his own sophisticated delegate operation. But the largest pool of delegates holds unclear allegiances and will be the subject of fierce lobbying efforts by the Trump campaign, the RNC and the anti-Trump faction in the coming weeks.

“This is going to be the battle of the whip operations,” Evans said.

Neither the Trump campaign nor the Republican National Committee responded to requests for comment.

The “free the delegates” advocates, meanwhile, have been cheered by what they see as subtle nods to their efforts by Republican establishment figures. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said earlier this month that delegates should follow their conscience when casting a vote. A fellow Wisconsin Republican, Gov. Scott Walker, echoed those remarks.

Proponents have begun to hire staff, coordinate their efforts through regular conference calls and begin delegate outreach. Lonegan, Unruh and other organizers have also become staples on cable news, hoping to build momentum via a media blitz.

Citizens in Charge Foundation, a conservative organization, has distributed Haugland’s book, “Unbound,” for free, and an affiliated group is running a television ad nationally on cable calling for delegates to vote their conscience.

The foundation is also backing a lawsuit filed last week by a Virginia delegate who is seeking to block a state law requiring delegates to cast their votes on the first ballot according to the results of the primary.

“Our effort is to provide political cover, understanding and education to the delegates,” said Dane Waters, a co-founder of the group called Delegates Unbound.

What they are not trying to do, Waters said, is promote a substitute for Trump.

“We don't have a dog in the hunt. We’re not trying to push any specific candidate,” Waters said. “As long as the delegates can vote freely, let the cards fall where they may.”

The lack of a stand-in may ultimately cripple this effort. Delegates may be wary of throwing the convention proceedings into chaos without a clear sense of who may come out victorious.

“You can't beat somebody with nobody. Today, we have no viable alternative'” said Saul Anuzis, a former senior adviser to Cruz.

Another hurdle is delegates’ wariness about contradicting the results of the primaries.

"The concept that you can just ignore what the voters told you to do is anathema to all of the principled people I know in the California delegation,” said Harmeet K. Dhillon, vice chair of the California Republican Party and a member of the convention rules committee.

Dhillon said she expected the insurrection efforts to have little traction with Golden State attendees, all of whom signed pledges vowing to back the real estate mogul, who handily won the state’s June 7 primary.

Lonegan, who backed Cruz in the primary, said he believed the threat of a delegate uprising could ultimately help Trump, forcing him to become a more disciplined candidate focused on uniting the party. Or, he said, there could be an entirely unexpected nominee.

Under any scenario, Lonegan acknowledged, he and his allies are in uncharted territory.  

“There's no experience with this. There's no blueprint or textbook on how to do what we're doing,” said Lonegan. “We're learning by the hour, by the day.”

By Melanie Mason, The Los Angeles Times