Conservative backlash grows against brokered convention

Anti-establishment Republicans are up in arms over talk of a brokered Republican Party convention. 

Ben Carson warned a brokered convention would “destroy” the GOP, while supporters of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBad science is everywhere and people are buying it Poll: 70 percent say campaign has brought out the worst in people Madonna goes topless to support Clinton MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzBad science is everywhere and people are buying it Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate MORE expressed dismay that party leaders would take part in meetings considering the possibility. 

ADVERTISEMENT
“This is clearly their contingency to stop Trump and Cruz at all costs,” Iowa radio host Steve Deace, who is supporting Cruz for president, told The Hill. “These people would rather lose elections than lose control of the party. And they'd rather have Hillary [Clinton] in the White House than someone the GOP base actually wants.”

The Washington Post reported Thursday that party leaders — including supporters of GOP presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco RubioMarco RubioSenators express 'grave concerns' about ObamaCare 'bailout' Obama nominates ambassador to Cuba Rubio praises Marlins pitcher José Fernández on Senate floor MORE — met privately to discuss the possibility of a brokered convention, ostensibly to derail the hopes of any candidate deemed unelectable by party elites. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSenate moves to get out of town Obama urges McConnell, Reid to sustain 9/11 bill veto Reid to GOP: Commit to Flint money MORE (R-Ky.) and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus attended the meeting at a Washington restaurant, though they did not speak at it, according to the Post. 

The meeting follows months in which Trump has dominated the race. Carson and Cruz, two other candidates that some Republicans believe would be weak in a general election, are also near the top of polls, though Carson has been fading.

Trump’s rise in particular has unnerved the GOP establishment, which worries his candidacy could sink Republican hopes of maintaining Senate control. Trump courted controversy this week by calling for a temporary ban on Muslims traveling to the United States, a position rejected by every other GOP candidate but that polls show has support from the Republican electorate.

Supporters for insurgent candidates view the private discussions as desperation from terrified establishment figures, and they believe it will only serve to harden their supporters. Carson’s campaign was already fundraising off the report by mid-afternoon on Friday.

“Dumb. Big mistake. They just poured gasoline all over the fire,” said Jeffrey Lord, a former Ronald Reagan administration official who supports Trump for president. 

“I get that you need to have contingency plans in place, but this looks like they’re trying to rig the game, and it just feeds the narrative that the establishment is completely out of touch with the base.”

Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had a short message for the RNC:

“Play the game out in front of us,” he told The Hill, adding that he’s not worried about a brokered convention because “every piece of data shows that [Donald Trump] is the clear front-runner.”

The speculation that party leaders are privately discussing what to do if an outsider is on course to land the nomination provided fresh evidence of a disconnect between base conservatives and establishment Republicans.

“The Republican establishment is playing with fire if they take any action that is perceived to harm the winners of caucus and primary states,” said Adam Brandon, CEO of the conservative activist group FreedomWorks.

“If that’s what they are planning or doing, they may inadvertently set the stage for independent presidential campaigns and further damage an already fractured relationship with many conservatives and Republican voters, which is why insurgent candidates are thriving in the first place.”

Supporters for Bush and Rubio attended the meeting, according to the Post, and officials from those campaigns did not respond to requests for comment. 

The RNC pushed back strongly Friday against the characterization that some within the party are plotting a takeover at the convention.

RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said the discussion about the potential for a brokered convention was merely “cocktail conversation” over the nuts and bolts of the race.

“There was a dinner where the subject was how the delegate process works,” Spicer said Friday on CNN.

“We walked through the delegate selection process, what states were going on what date, how each state handled the delegate process, and at the end we took a series of questions,” he said. “It’s really nothing more than that.”

Spicer argued that it wasn’t suspicious that supporters of Bush and Rubio were on hand, noting that Priebus’s days are full of meetings with representatives from all the campaigns, as well as conservative pundits, consultants and advisers from all corners of the party.

Still, some say the appearance of the meeting is bad for the national party, which is once again seeking to stamp out a fire that has sprung up over its handling of the primary process. 

Fair or not, the alleged discussion about a brokered convention will confirm the suspicions many in the base have harbored for a long time and have helped to fuel the rise of Trump, Carson and Cruz.

“It’s completely counterproductive if it looks like Republican power-brokers are trying to orchestrate this,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is supporting Bush for president.

Gregg, a columnist for The Hill, said the party may be headed to a contested convention not to ambush an outsider, but because it will be difficult for one candidate in the huge field of contenders to lock down a majority of delegates.

The party needs to have the infrastructure and processes in place to handle that scenario, but it’s unhelpful to plan for it in a way that could be perceived as putting a thumb on the scale, Gregg argued.

“It’s something Priebus has to plan for, but he needs to be careful who he’s discussing it with,” Gregg said. “The days of party-boss politics are over and have been over for a long time. People will have a negative reaction to anything that has a whiff of that kind of backroom dealing.”

Supporters for establishment Republicans running for president mostly rolled their eyes at the controversy, saying it was an example of outsider candidates looking to stoke outrage over the byzantine rules governing the GOP nominating process.

“This is getting totally blown out of proportion,” said Katie Packer Gage, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign whose consulting firm is assisting Rubio’s efforts in Michigan.

“The idea that the Illuminati within the party is coming down from on high to decide who will be the nominee is ludicrous,” she continued. “Ben Carson needs to call someone versed in parliamentary procedures to explain to him how this all works.”

While some Republicans say the huge field makes it more likely that the party could face its first contested convention since 1976, there is still broad skepticism from many quarters that that’s where things are headed. Many believe the eventual nominee will emerge once the primaries turn to winner-take-all contests on March 15.

“This is just a story that turns up at points in the cycle when there’s no definition to the race,” said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, who is supporting John Kasich for president. “This idea that there will be a stampede on the floor is very romantic, but I don’t see it happening.”

A spokesperson for Chris Christie’s campaign declined to weigh in, other than to say that the New Jersey governor is only focused on winning the nomination outright. That was the general message coming from campaign operatives in private conversations with several other campaigns.

“Here’s the bottom line,” Spicer said. “Republican voters will choose the delegates that go to the convention in Cleveland next July. Those people will decide the nominee.”