A small but determined band of Republicans has stepped up its efforts to deny Donald Trump the GOP presidential nomination by freeing his convention delegates to vote for someone else.
The movement has a website and is reportedly raising money. Radio and TV ads are expected this week. Leaders have reached out to disgruntled Republicans in several states, including Missouri, to discuss a common approach to changing the rules and allowing an open convention in Cleveland this July.
The effort remains a long shot and is opposed by the GOP’s leadership and by Trump. “There is no organized effort, strategy or leader of this so-called movement,” Republican spokesman Sean Spicer said on social media this week.
Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock made a similar statement downplaying the chances of an open convention.
Yet former state lawmaker Carl Bearden, a Missouri delegate and well-known party activist, told The Star he’s working with almost a dozen like-minded Republicans to open the nomination process. “We’re just getting started,” he said.
Republican delegates in several other states also are involved, he said. Organizers claim several hundred delegates and alternates recently joined a conference call about an open convention.
“I don’t think Trump is dependable,” Bearden said. “Certainly not a consistent conservative, and not what the country needs.”
Trump’s lackluster fundraising in May has added some heat to the conversations, Republicans said. “In May, Trump raised a paltry $3.1 million,” said a post on the Free the Delegates Facebook page.
It doesn’t help, they say, that Trump has stepped on his own message on more than one occasion since becoming the presumptive nominee.
They’re also worried about Trump’s impact on U.S. Senate and House races, where GOP candidates may face difficult questions about the top of the ticket.
Organizer Kendal Unruh, a Colorado delegate, said the outcome would justify the effort to open the convention. “Short-term, yes, there’s going to be chaos,” she told The Washington Post. “Long term, this saves the party and we win the election.”
Under Missouri’s Republican Party rules, delegates are pledged to reflect the results of the March 15 primary. Under those rules, 37 delegates must cast their first ballots for Trump.
Similar rules bind convention delegates in almost every other state, including Kansas. That state’s delegates must vote for their assigned candidate on every ballot until officially released.
One faction of GOP delegates argues those rules are not legal requirements and are therefore unenforceable. They think delegates are free to vote their consciences now.
“Delegates are and should be able to vote the way they see fit,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told The Associated Press this week. “We’ll see how things go between now and the convention as to what the next steps are.”
Another faction says delegates can change the rules in Cleveland. With a majority vote of the convention, they argue, all delegates would be able to vote their preferences, ignoring the results of primaries and state conventions.
While current rules bind delegates to candidates, delegates are allowed to vote as they wish on rules changes and credentials disputes. At least some Trump delegates are known to support other candidates and could vote to open the nomination process no matter what Trump tells them to do.
Changing the rules to allow an open convention would likely go first to the party’s rules committee, which meets the week before the full convention. There are 112 committee members — two from every state and territory and Washington, D.C.
Missouri’s rules committee members are Harvey Tettlebaum of California, Mo., and Pat Thomas of Jefferson City. Both seemed skeptical of any rules change unbinding delegates and opening the convention.
“I’m willing to listen to both sides,” Thomas said, but “I’m not big on doing a knee-jerk reaction with rules.”
The rules committee can’t open the convention by itself. Instead, its recommendations would go to the full convention for a vote.
Any changes to convention rules would also likely run into a buzzsaw of criticism from committed Trump supporters.
“I don’t think there’s any chance they’ll be successful,” said Mark Anthony Jones, a Jackson County delegate and a Trump supporter. “I’ll do everything I can personally to make sure they’re not successful.”
Jones called Bearden a “bad apple.”
Bearden conceded he’s running into some resistance from Missouri delegates, even those uneasy with Trump.
“What we’re talking about is somewhat unusual,” he said. “It is a rebellion of sorts, so that makes some people uncomfortable. While they might believe what (we’re) saying about Trump, they may not not believe it enough to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to step out.’ ”
The free-convention, anti-Trump effort is complicated by the continuing lack of a firm alternative to the New York businessman. Bearden said the movement is not recommending any specific candidate to replace Trump at the top of the ticket.
And Republicans not going to the convention say any move to deny Trump the nomination would deeply alienate Trump’s supporters, likely dooming the party’s chances in November.
“You deny him the nomination and whoever takes his place is going to get a result that’s not good,” said Woody Cozad, former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.
The success or failure of the open-convention push may be clear by the beginning of next week.
A GOP spokesman in Kansas said there is no evidence of a similar organized effort in that state to move delegates away from Trump. The state has 24 Sen. Ted Cruz delegates, nine for Trump, six for Sen. Marco Rubio and one for Gov. John Kasich.
Cruz won 15 delegates in Missouri’s March primary, but a party official says those delegates are now unbound because the Cruz campaign is “inactive.”