CLEVELAND - This is the last stand for the "Never Trump" movement.
Just days before formally nominating Donald Trump as its presidential candidate, the Republican Party must first sort out exactly how that will happen and put down an insurrection among delegates still upset with what's poised to transpire.
The forum will be the rules committee of the Republican National Convention - a 112-member body composed of two representatives from 56 states and territories. The group includes two lawmakers, one Senate spouse, dozens of grass-roots activists and 42 members of the Republican National Committee - a separate body that acts as the party's board of directors but takes its cues from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
In most years, the committee's work is little-noticed, because the party's presidential nominee is a sure thing and any changes enacted by the panel usually don't apply until the next presidential election.
But this year, a coalition of anti-Trump groups, working under the umbrella name Free the Delegates, is planning to introduce a series of changes that could spark genuine drama on the floor of the convention next week. Or the group will be quickly exposed as an unorganized band severely outgunned by Trump supporters and the party's ruling intelligentsia.
By next week, Trump will be on the cusp of formally accepting the Republican nomination for president. He is poised to be formally nominated by the convention Monday and scheduled to accept the nod next Thursday night.
The political situation here in Cleveland is fluid and will be influenced by outside forces, including Trump's choice of a running mate. But here's a general sense of what to expect in the coming days:
SCENARIO 1: DONALD TRUMP EASILY SAILS TO THE NOMINATION
Likelihood: Better than most.
This happens if the "Never Trump" forces fail to secure the votes needed on the rules committee to change the rules - and fail to get even the 28 votes that are needed to introduce their proposal as a "minority report" to the full Republican National Convention. (More on that below.)
Under this scenario, just one potentially semi-related embarrassing scenario remains: Do delegates upset with Trump's nomination start leaving Cleveland before Thursday night?
With so many top Republicans already skipping the convention, there is some fear among top GOP leaders that rank-and-file delegates might also come up with excuses - the city's strict security procedures, a long-scheduled root canal - and flee as soon as they've completed their official duties. That would force the Trump campaign to scramble to fill empty seats in the arena. The likelihood of this won't be known until Tuesday or Wednesday.
SCENARIO 2: DELEGATES BECOME 'UNBOUND'
Likelihood: Depends on how things go in the committee meeting.
The future of the "Never Trump" movement now rests on this scenario.
Kendal Unruh, a rules committee member from Colorado, is attending her eighth GOP convention this year. A longtime supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, she's the face of Free the Delegates and the one leading the charge on the panel to change how the convention nominates Trump. She's joined in her campaign by Curly Haugland, a committee member from North Dakota.
The pair plan to introduce a proposal that would formally "unbind" delegates from the results of the contests held in the states and territories. Under this scenario, delegates would be allowed to "vote their conscience" - meaning that a delegate from a state that voted for Trump could opt to vote for Cruz, or another person.
Priebus and the RNC are opposed to such moves, saying that current party rules require delegates to be bound to the results of contests. But Haugland, whose involvement in GOP politics dates back decades, has been trying for years to reset the rules to a process used long before the party relied on caucuses and primaries to pick a candidate.
Keep an eye on two key swing votes: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), and his wife, Sharon Lee. They're representing Utah on the committee and haven't signaled how they would vote. Given Lee's loyal following in conservative and tea party circles, some other delegates may see his support for the proposal as political air cover.
If Unruh can win over the Lees, "It's easy street for us," she said.
She believes that her proposal has the support of at least 30 committee members. If Lee comes aboard, the number could climb higher than 30, she said. That's still far short of the 56 needed for a rules change to pass, but it's more than the 28 needed to file a "minority report."
Under convention rules, minority reports issued by a committee can be introduced to the full convention after it formally convenes Monday. Once the formalities are dispensed with, the convention chairman will instruct the convention committees on credentials, platform and rules to quickly meet again off the floor to wrap up unfinished business.
That's when Unruh, Haugland and their like-minded colleagues will signal whether they still have the votes needed to file a minority report. If they succeed, the proposal will be presented to the full convention for a vote.
If it's rejected, it's game over. If it's approved, tune in for the first convention floor fight of the 21st century.
SCENARIO 3: THE 'ARRANGED MARRIAGE' OPTION
Likelihood: Depends on what happens with the "unbind" proposals.
If attempts to unbind delegates fail, Free the Delegates sees this as a decent consolation prize. Call it the "arranged marriage" option. Already, delegates aren't bound to vote for the vice presidential nominee, but they've usually gone along with the presidential candidate's pick as a formality.
Given the concerns of conservatives upset by Trump's stance on trade, abortion rights, gay rights, etc., why not force him to run with a more conservative running mate?
That could happen if the rules committee passes a change that requires the VP candidate to earn the votes of two-thirds of the full convention to win the nomination. If the veep fails to do so, it would spark a floor fight. A candidate would be selected as vice president once they've secured a majority of the convention delegates.
Regina Thomson, executive director of Free the Delegates, said the vice presidency should be in play because, "We could nominate and maybe elect a man who's going into office at 70 years old and would be going in as the oldest president ever. There's a possibility that at some point the vice president might have to step in as president."
Trump, 70, would be the oldest American to assume the presidency. Ronald Reagan was 69 years and a few months when he took office in 1981.
FORCE A ROLL CALL OF THE STATES
Likelihood: Anti-Trump delegates will try, but likely fail, if Trump is on a glide path to the nomination.
This is Plan C for Free the Delegates.
If the "unbinding" plan fails to win majority support or enough for a minority report, the group is planning to request a roll call of the states, sparking an hours-long process designed to put on the record exactly how each of the 2,472 delegates voted in each of the 56 states and territories.
It's a cumbersome process laden with home state pride ("Alabama: Home of the college football champions!" "Idaho: The first state to sue over Obamacare!" "Wisconsin: Try our cheese!") that would stretch into prime time on the first night of the convention, likely embarrassing the Trump campaign and party leaders eager to project unity.
The more likely scenario? If Trump is free of any challenges, his supporters will move to quickly make it official and acclimate his nomination.
STAY OFF THE CONVENTION FLOOR
Details: A group of Republicans calling for anti-Trump delegates to stay off the convention floor to rob Trump of the requisite 1,237-delegate minimum needed to win the nomination. The group, Save Our Party, has urged delegates to come to Cleveland, obtain floor credentials, but to stay off the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena when the formal nomination process begins. That way Trump can't secure the delegates needed on a first ballot. These delegates should only return to the floor once their state has reached the round of balloting where they become unbound to the results of their caucus or primary.
Bottom line: They want to snatch the nomination from Trump in the most "Scandal"/"House of Cards"-way possible. Don't bet on it.
OPEN VS. CLOSED PRIMARIES
Likelihood: Harder to forecast because it's an issue of concern dating to before Trump's campaign.
This is a proposed change that won't affect Trump this year, but will have an immediate impact on the 2020 presidential campaign, when he could be running for reelection.
This year, Trump lost a majority of Republican voters in Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. But he won a majority of Republicans who voted in contests held in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Had there been only closed primaries this year, Trump still would be the nominee in waiting. A group of delegates who supported Cruz's campaign are mulling a plan that would incentivize holding "closed" caucuses, conventions and primaries only for registered Republicans instead of "open" contests that allow independents and in some cases, Democrats, to vote.
The RNC can't force state parties to make the change (remember, this is a party that believes in federalism), but it could put in place incentives, like awarding more delegates to states that hold closed contests.
Again, this is designed to lay the groundwork for potential 2020 campaigns by Cruz, but also Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., or Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and other more conservative contenders.
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