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Who will have the power at a brokered GOP convention?

Elaine Kamarck

What should the Republican Party do about Trump? That is the question on the minds of many as we go into the final round of primaries and caucuses—a round in which Trump could get the most votes, the most delegates, and perhaps even lock up the nomination. But in the past few weeks the anti-Trump forces have been getting their act together—somewhat belatedly—and the political class is salivating over the fact that there could be a brokered convention for the first time in more than half a century. How would that happen? And who are the brokers?

Following is a comprehensive list of the possibilities. I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea what the probabilities are that each will occur.

  1. Trump wins a majority of delegates and goes on to win on a first ballot. Once he amasses the necessary delegates, Trump might pivot to the general and turn into a thoughtful, serious person who stops insulting people and stops making ridiculous statements. He cleans up his act just enough to hand him a tepid endorsement from the rest of the party. The last debate was noteworthy for the way in which Trump seemed to have reined himself in, refraining from the gratuitous insults that were his previous stock in trade. All-in-all he seemed to be trying to be more presidential and less controversial. However, after the debate, he quickly reverted to form by telling people that there would be “riots in the street” if he didn’t get the nomination. So the “acting-like-a-president” gambit doesn’t seem like something he can sustain.

  2. Trump wins a majority of delegates and goes on to win on a first ballot…but the congressional wing of the party goes it alone. In this scenario, Trump gets a majority of delegates and wins the nomination, but the rest of the Republican Party decides to just give up on the presidency this time around. Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the congressional leadership separates itself from Trump and gives a back-handed endorsement to Hillary Clinton by campaigning on the need to have a solid Republican Congress in order to stop what they consider President Hillary Clinton’s worst ideas.
  3. Trump wins enough delegates to win on a first ballot but he does not have enough friends at the grass roots level of the Republican Party to elect delegates who are loyal to him. Already conservatives like Roger Stone are warning Trump to beware of “Trojan horse delegates.” The draft rules for the Republican National Convention stipulate that delegates have to vote for the person who won their state, or at least cast their votes proportionally. But these rules can be changed by a vote of the convention rules committee which is different from the Republican National Committee’s rules committee. If the convention rules committee changes the rules and all convention delegates vote to agree with them, they could open the door to defections from Trump. Then, Trump fails to get a majority on the first ballot; Cruz and Kasich make a deal and Cruz  most likely wins the presidential nomination on the second ballot, with Kasich becoming the vice presidential nominee.
  4. The outside compromise. This is a variation of option #3 except that the convention does not turn to Cruz or Kasich and instead seeks an outside compromise candidate like Speaker Paul Ryan to become their standard bearer.
  5. Trump goes into the convention with a plurality but not a majority of delegates. This guarantees a second ballot even without his opponents having to win votes on rule changes. In this scenario, there is no test vote to determine which other candidate might have the strength to put together a majority so expect either a long period of negotiations between the first and second ballot or more than two ballots. If none of the candidates who have delegates in the hall can win on a second ballot, the convention could well turn to an outside candidate.

For scenarios #3, #4, and #5 to unfold with a modicum of decorum, there need to be “brokers” so-called because they in fact “broker” the deal or conduct the negotiations. And yet the kind of brokers that were standard in old-fashioned conventions don’t exist anymore. There used to be powerful elected or party leaders who could literally tell the delegates from their state what to do because they had hand-picked the delegates. The modern system doesn’t allow power brokers to hand pick delegates anymore—they are elected in state party caucuses, conventions and, executive committees in the spring. But that doesn’t mean that a contested convention would be devoid of brokers.

For those of us who have been to nominating conventions (I’ve been to eight Democratic ones and three Republican ones) you know that every day begins with a delegation meeting. The delegation meeting features national guests but also real and aspirational state political bigwigs. Most of the discussion in those meetings has to do with how to win not just the presidency but other offices in the state. Former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s most famous line is “All politics is local,” and that is true even at conventions. A governor is apt to be quite powerful and influential within the delegation. He or she has power over contracts, lobbying and a certain amount of influence over who gets nominated for what offices. Since most convention delegates are people who want to retain or build on their political standing in the state—they will take seriously what a sitting governor says.

The Republican Party has thirty-one sitting governors and most if not all of them will be at the convention. Only a handful of them: Rick Scott (Fla.) Paul LePage (Maine) and Chris Christie (N.J.) have endorsed Trump. Six of them have endorsed one of the other candidates and three of them: Asa Hutchinson (Ark.), Bill Haslam (Tenn.) and Charlie Baker (Mass.) have said flat out that they won’t vote for Trump.

That leaves 19 powerful potential brokers. Eight of them have said they’ll support the eventual nominee and 11 have simply remained silent or undecided.


kamarck brokered convention graphic copy_revised3

What they decide will have a powerful impact on what happens in Cleveland. Figuring out where a governor might end up is tricky at this early date, but some of them are giving hints about where they stand. For instance, Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Rubio supporter, seems to have left the door open for negotiation under certain circumstances: “It’s one thing if (Trump) goes to the convention and he’s got 48 percent, 49 percent of the delegates,” he said in an interview. “Then it’s a hard thing to see if there’s a convention floor battle. But if he goes to the convention and he’s got 35 or 40 percent, that’s a whole different thing.”

There is a similar ambiguity in the pronouncements of other governors. Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama said: “John Kasich is really the only grownup in the room. He is the only one who has a true plan for this country.” However, the article notes that, “Bentley, despite his criticism of Trump, said he would support the Republican nominee in November, even if it is Trump.”

Other governors are clearer about where they stand. Take, for instance, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts who said of Trump: “I’m not going to vote for him in November.”

Or, on the other side, Governor Rick Scott of Florida: “With his victories yesterday (March 15th), I believe it is now time for Republicans to accept and respect the will of the voters and coalesce behind Donald Trump….If we spend another four months tearing each other apart, we will damage our ability to win in November,” Scott continued. “It’s time for an end to the Republican on Republican violence. It’s time for us to begin coming together; we’ve had a vigorous primary, now let’s get serious about winning in November.”

Governors are likely to be the “brokers” at any contested convention. But they will not be alone. There are a slew of vulnerable Republican Senators up for reelection this year, and they are likely to try and persuade delegates to do what’s best for them as well as for other office holders on the Republican ticket. Ditto for Republican House members. In fact, until Trump started winning, Democrats figured that the Republican lock on the House of Representatives was unassailable. Now, some Democrats are allowing themselves to think that they might take back the House.

The “brokers” at the Cleveland convention will end up being the same sort of people who were brokers in the old days—but with somewhat less power. They will be people thinking not just about the presidency, but about the overall health of the party from Commander in Chief to dogcatcher. Watch what they do as this race unfolds.

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