Republicans opposed to Donald Trump are plotting a last-ditch effort to deny him their party’s nomination at the convention in Cleveland.
A coalition of delegates, lawyers, rules experts and PACs has formed in what participants say is the most coordinated effort to date to dump Trump from the Republican ticket.
The organizers are confident of success and say they're being underestimated.
"This is a laser-guided bomb aimed right at the foundation of the Trump campaign," said Beau Correll, a Virginia delegate and central figure in the opposition movement.
But despite the gains the groups say they've made in fundraising, staffing, coordination and media attention, few are taking their efforts seriously.
Trump’s campaign, led by battle-tested convention manager Paul Manafort, has been working closely with the Republican National Committee (RNC).
It will be Trump’s convention, and his loyalists will have control of the agenda, the microphones and access to an army of supporters ready to surround and shout down insurgents looking to cause a scene inside the Quicken Loans Arena.
No one at the RNC or within the Trump campaign is expressing any degree of panic over the uprising. RNC strategist Sean Spicer told The Hill the effort is nothing more than “tweets and media fascination.”
Skeptics say the insurgents don’t have the votes they need on the Rules Committee — a bastion of party traditionalists — to “unbind” delegates from Trump. And while an emergency legal challenge to unbind delegates in Virginia has a chance, legal experts say, it’s not a great one.
Even if the rebels are able to convince hundreds of delegates to ignore the results of the monthslong primary contest — won handily by Trump — there are processes in place that could ensure the New York mogul becomes the nominee.
“They’ve laid down the dried leaves to start the fire but they need lightning to strike,” said one prominent conservative lawyer who requested anonymity. “It is really tough to organize the kind of whip operation you need at something as sprawling as the Republican National Convention. Really, really tough.”
Still, the effort appears more organized than any of the failed Never Trump movements that came before it.
Conservative media figures Erick Erickson, Steve Deace and Bill Kristol have begun joining the conference calls for the coalition and are fanning the flames in editorials and on the airwaves.
Republicans are closely watching the Virginia lawsuit, filed by Correll, in federal court on Friday that challenges a state law that binds delegates to the primary winner. A ruling is expected before the convention, and could come as early as this week.
Legal experts interviewed by The Hill say the lawsuit has a better chance than similar efforts that have failed in the past but still described it as a “long-shot.”
Never Trump Republicans believe a decision in their favor could ignite a stampede away from the presumptive nominee by validating their argument that all of the delegates to the convention are unbound.
“It would be like a shot of Red Bull straight to the vein,” said Kendal Unruh, a Colorado delegate and one of the main organizers of the planned convention revolt.
Unruh’s efforts have so far earned the lion’s share of media attention.
She sits on the Rules Committee and is waging a campaign to achieve 57 votes from the 112-member panel in favor of a “Conscience Clause” that would unbind delegates to support whomever they choose.
Unruh says she has 17 firm commitments and eight soft pledges so far. That’s short of the 28 signatures she needs for the rule to even be considered for adoption. Party insiders interviewed by The Hill don’t see her reaching that threshold.
Several other groups are ready with back-up plans in case she falls short.
Colorado conservative activist Regina Thomson, who runs a PAC called Free the Delegates, is organizing a floor fight irrespective of the Rules Committee’s decision.
Thomson is overseeing an effort to convince delegates that they’re already unbound. She is talking to delegates about parliamentary rules and how to protest on the convention floor if their representative doesn’t cast a vote in accordance with their wishes.
Another group, called Delegates Unbound, led by GOP strategist Dane Waters, is overseeing a national lobbying campaign focused on contacting delegates before they arrive in Cleveland to urge them to vote their conscience.
His group has raised $2.5 million and has already run a $150,000 spot on Fox News Channel. Waters said he will have a staff of 15 regional and state directors manning his national whip operation.
Those three groups are now strategizing together and sharing data.
They claim to have secured enough money to launch a legal defense fund and invest in communications technologies that will keep them in contact with one another on the convention floor.
They say they started bringing volunteers on as full-time employees this week and that they will have lawyers and convention experts on the ground in Cleveland.
Thomson says 350 to 400 delegates and alternates have already inquired about how they can help. An organizing conference call on Sunday night hit maximum capacity of 2,000 participants, Thomson said.
Still, the deck is stacked mightily against the rebellion.
Many Republicans interviewed by The Hill privately grumbled about the effort, describing it as a tiny band of disgruntled delegates engaged in a vanity project that would destroy the party if it were successful.
They believe the likeliest end game is that a few skirmishes break out on the convention floor but are quickly extinguished.
The organizers say they’re already under intense pressure at the state level to back away from the effort. Delegates considering joining the rebellion will face the same pressure.
And a host of parliamentary rules designed to make the convention a coronation rather than an election are available to Trump and the RNC to beat back any inroads the insurgents might make.
“I don’t see anything here that would spark a stampede away from Trump,” said the conservative lawyer.
“What sets off the stampede is Trump doing badly in the polls and Senate candidates falling behind because of it. They need someone, somewhere, like [RNC Chairman] Reince Priebus or [Speaker] Paul Ryan or [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell to show an ounce of leadership if they’re to be successful. That’s been nonexistent so far.”
By Jonathan Easley, The Hill