GOP lawmakers open door to brokered convention

Greg Nash

Next summer could see the first brokered convention in four decades.

While still unlikely, the idea got a big boost from some Republicans in Congress who are grasping for some way, any way, to deny front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate Trump camp talking points: Mention Monica Lewinsky Trump floats theory that Google suppresses negative news on Clinton MORE the party’s presidential nomination.

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Capitol Hill was set abuzz this week by a Washington Post report that GOP party elders including Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had discussed the possibility of a contested convention. 

A small chorus of voices even floated new Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanMichigan Dems highlight Flint with unanimous opposition to CR Congress departs for recess until after Election Day House votes to delay Obama's overtime rule MORE (R-Wis.) as a possible nominee if no-one captures the majority of the 2,470 delegates by the time the convention kicks off.

If it happens, it would be the first floor fight for the presidential nomination of a major party since President Ford held off an insurgent challenge from Ronald Reagan in Kansas City, Mo., in 1976.

There are other signs Republicans are gearing up for a potential brokered convention. One member of the GOP leadership team, Rep. Luke Messer, told The Hill he’s planning to run for a delegate seat in his home state of Indiana next year in anticipation of a possible floor fight in Cleveland. And many of the 14 remaining GOP contenders are plotting primary campaigns well into the summer of 2016, lawmakers have been told by candidates.

“I have broad disagreement with Donald Trump. If he is our nominee, I think he loses, I think Republicans lose the Senate, he puts the House at risk and sends the party into the wilderness for the next decade,” said Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), a Jeb Bush backer who this week called for Trump to quit the race.

“If there is a mechanism to make sure somebody other than Donald Trump wins the nomination, I think that is a good thing for Republicans.”

Fellow Florida Republican and Bush supporter, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, agreed: “I wouldn’t support Donald Trump for president if he were our nominee. I would support any reasonable idea to find a better nominee.”

Other Republicans were more diplomatic — though their message was roughly the same.

Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio) said the thousands upon thousands of fervent Trump supporters should be “respected” and heard in the nominating process. But Chabot, a committee chairman who’s close to leadership, warned that the party needed to exhaust every opportunity to ensure Republicans defeat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton on Election Day.

“So whatever it is that makes that more likely to happen, I’m for it. I don’t know if it’s a brokered convention or not,” Chabot told The Hill. “But it would be unrealistic for us not to at least have that in the back of our minds that that is a distinct possibility this time.”

However, a number of GOP lawmakers interviewed for this story say talk of a brokered convention amounts to nothing more than silly speculation. They emphasize that not a single vote has been cast and that the Iowa caucuses are more than a month away. And they predict voters will eventually consolidate their support behind a single candidate.

“We have a primary system. I just have faith in the voters,” said GOP Rep. Joe Wilson, who hails from the early primary state of South Carolina and is backing his home-state Sen. Lindsey Graham.

In recent decades, presidential conventions have amounted to little more than pre-cooked political theater with the nominee determined months earlier during states’ primary elections.

But with a reality TV star and real estate mogul leading the polls for almost five months, many Republicans now accept that this is an election cycle like no other. Trump’s call this week to ban Muslims from entering the United States caused heartburn for a GOP establishment trying to widen the party’s appeal, but Trump maintained his commanding lead in a new Reuters/Ipsos poll released Friday.

Messer, the House GOP Policy Committee chairman, called it “certainly possible” that there will be a brokered convention in 2016. The fractured GOP field suggests that even front-runner Trump — polling at roughly 30 percent — could have trouble securing an outright majority of delegates before Cleveland.

“I’m thinking about running to be a delegate because I think we may well be in a brokered convention,” Messer, another Bush supporter, said in an interview. “In that scenario, who knows? You may have Paul Ryan end up being president.”

“I’m sure he’s not planning for it or plotting for it, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” Chabot chimed in. “If it’s a brokered convention, anything’s possible.”

Another GOP lawmaker also offered up Ryan’s name unprompted. The Speaker, the lawmaker said, raised eyebrows when he gave his “Confident America” speech at the ornate Library of Congress, where he vowed to lay out a bold, conservative GOP agenda in 2016.

I really think the Speaker is setting himself up to be considered for the nominee in the case there is a brokered convention,” said the GOP lawmaker, who already has endorsed in the primary.

“Since when does the Speaker of the House set the agenda for the party the way he is promising to do when the party will have a presidential nominee? When does the Speaker give a major policy address with that kind of backdrop?”

Several Ryan allies said it’s simply part of the Speaker’s job requirements to set a legislative agenda. And Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong offered a two-word reply when told about the Ryan for President chatter: “That’s funny.”

By virtue of his job as Speaker, Ryan just happens to be the chairman of the 2016 GOP convention. And even as he condemned Trump’s remarks on Muslims, Ryan told reporters it would be “weird” if he didn’t back the party’s eventual nominee.

Not all the Republicans pining for a brokered convention are doing so with Trump in mind.

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus that pressured then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to resign earlier this year, said Trump wasn’t his first or his second choice in the GOP primary. But Salmon said he has a bigger problem with the current primary system, where the late-voting Grand Canyon State has little ability to help pick the nominee.

“I think the primary process has gotten very mundane and I think it would be great to shake things up,” Salmon told The Hill. “I’ve always thought that a brokered convention is exactly what this party needs, because it’s not canned. It’s more real, authentic.

“The idea of actually having these delegates’ votes count is something that I think could be kind of cool.”