Threat of Brokered Convention Fuels GOP Rules Panel

Threat of Brokered Convention Fuels GOP Rules Panel
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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The most important time during the Republican Convention could be the week leading up to the convention.

That is when GOP delegates and Republican National Committee members will gather to work out the rules governing the four-day gathering this summer.

They are numerous and convoluted, which is causing confusion among the ranks but giving an added incentive to lower-tier presidential candidates to stay in the race long enough to bank a bloc of delegates to put into play in Cleveland.

That confusion was on display during the RNC’s Winter Meeting here when the Standing Committee on Rules met Thursday. The meeting stopped at three different points for the parliamentarian and committee members to debate the rules behind changing the rules.

At one point the committee approved an amendment that would have negated a subsection of the controversial Rule 40, which requires the GOP presidential nominee to have a majority of support in eight different states. Upon realizing what they had done, the committee membership quickly proposed an amendment to the amendment to put the subsection back in play.

Several times during the almost two-hour meeting, RNC members asked for clarification on what was being debated and what part of the rules would be affected. A few of them asked to leave the microphone so they could move closer to the enormous projection screen on the wall displaying the proposed amendment. “I can’t see the screen” was heard more than once.

Even Rules Chairman Bruce Ash of Arizona had to check his notes -- and with the parliamentarian -- on what to do next, apologizing at one point for his “brain fart” as he ruled on various motions. Officially, party members don’t want to talk about a brokered or, as they prefer to call it, a “contested” convention, downplaying the possibility it may happen. But the hallways of the luxurious Belmond Charleston Place buzzed with chatter about it.

Several times when two or more attendees gathered, the talk turned to convention rules. And no two seemed to agree on the best way to handle the chaos that would come if there is no presumptive nominee before the party gathers in July. The discussions were more theoretical than contentious but there was a slight sense of urgency along with rumblings about what the plan would be should a contested convention occur.

The real decisions will come in Cleveland – just a week before the convention starts on July 18. That is when the Convention Rules Committee, made up of two delegates from each state, will decide upon the rules governing the gathering. That part is complex too. The RNC Rules Committee makes recommendations on the convention rules to the national party, which then makes recommendations to the Convention Rules Committee, which then recommends a slate of rules to the delegates to approve on the first day of the convention.

A lot can happen in that process and that’s where some of the lower-tier presidential candidates could prove influential in the nominating process.

One of the items likely to be tackled at that time is the aforementioned Rule 40. The brainchild of GOP uber lawyer Ben Ginsberg in the 2012 Convention Rules meeting, it was designed to keep supporters of Ron Paul from putting on a display on the convention floor that might distract from the Mitt Romney narrative. Although it achieved this goal, the rule upset many of the party faithful—and the Republicans are apparently still stuck with it.

And in 2016, with 11 presidential candidates still in the race, several influential party officials worry that the eight-state majority requirement is too restrictive. Most presidential candidates win primaries with pluralities instead of majorities. And, if the GOP primary drags on, it could prove harder and harder for one contender to hit the eight-state threshold.

Even Rule 40 itself is open to interpretation. During Thursday’s meeting, RNC General Counsel John Ryder, the interpreter of the rules, argued that a “majority of support” could actually mean the presumptive nominee has demonstrated “enough support” in eight states. His argument: If delegates elected to support a presidential candidate who bowed out of the race moved their support to the presumptive nominee, that could count toward the majority.

That’s where the power of the lower-tier candidates could come into play.

Say, for example, John Kasich stays in the race through Ohio’s March 15 primary. As governor, Kasich is likely to win his home state and its winner-take-all 66 delegates. He’s also polling above 10 percent in New Hampshire, which is the threshold to win some delegates there in its proportional allotment system. Several other states have proportional primaries (with various thresholds to actually win delegates), giving Kasich several opportunities to pick up delegates here and there. Theoretically, he could do well enough to amass 200 or so (1,237 delegates are needed to win the nomination outright).

The same could apply to Jeb Bush. If he stays in the race until Florida’s March 15 primary, there’s a chance he could win his state’s 99 delegates in its winner-take-all contest. With Sen. Lindsey Graham’s endorsement of him on Friday, Bush could be poised to pick up a few in Graham’s home state of South Carolina, which awards its delegates proportionally. Bush could come out of the early primaries with a sizable bloc of delegates without winning anywhere but his home state.

Scenarios like that could make either man a power broker at a convention without a presumptive nominee. In a multi-ballot convention, which hasn’t happened for Republicans since 1948, the candidate who gathers support on the second or third ballots could end up as the nominee.

Kasich, Bush, Chris Christie or any other lower-tier GOP contender who has the money and the will to stay in the primary long enough to amass a few hundred loyal delegates could also prove to be a power broker in deciding a nominee by pushing their support toward one contender in the second round of voting.

“This time it could happen,” Morton Blackwell, an RNC member from Virginia who is a longtime Rules Committee member, said of a multi-ballot convention. And the candidate with the most delegates going into the convention wouldn’t necessarily end up as the nominee.

“At some point the second ballot or multiple ballot could yield someone who was behind that might end up winning,” Blackwell said.

The real worrying could come in March, when most states shift from proportional to winner-take-all, giving lower-tier candidates a better shot at winning more delegates.

Those candidate-loyal delegates also could prove helpful if they end up on the Convention Rules Committee, where, theoretically, rules could be made to prevent a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz from becoming the nominee, should one of them be leading in the delegate count.

Delegates to the Convention Rules Committee are picked by the delegations to the convention. Each state has its own rules on how the members are selected. But it is all theoretical until voting starts – Feb. 1 for the Iowa caucuses and Feb. 9 for the New Hampshire primary.

While waiting for the voting to begin, a little preparation doesn’t hurt, as anything could happen no matter how small the odds. As one RNC member warned the Rules Committee on Thursday: “Perfect storms come at the most inopportune times.”

Emily Goodin is the managing editor of RealClearPolitics.

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