The delegates are angered by Trump’s recent comments on gun control, his racial attacks on a federal judge and his sinking poll numbers. They are convinced that Trump is an insufficiently conservative candidate and believe they will find enough like-minded Republicans within the next month to change party rules and allow delegates to vote for whomever they want, regardless of who won their state caucus or primary.
The new campaign is being run by the only people who can actually make changes to party rules, rather than by pundits and media figures who have been pining for a Trump alternative. Many involved in the delegate-driven movement supported Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the primary but say they have no specific candidate in mind and are not taking cues from any of Trump’s vanquished opponents.
“This literally is an ‘Anybody but Trump’ movement,” said Kendal Unruh, a Republican delegate from Colorado who is leading the campaign. “Nobody has any idea who is going to step in and be the nominee, but we’re not worried about that. We’re just doing that job to make sure that he’s not the face of our party.”
The fresh wave of anti-Trump organizing comes as a growing number of Republicans have signaled that they will not support Trump for president. In addition, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who is slated to chair the Republican National Convention next month in Cleveland, said in remarks released Friday that House Republicans should “follow their conscience” on whether to support Trump.
Ryan has endorsed Trump. But his use of the word “conscience” could prove helpful to delegates organizing the anti-Trump campaign because they are pushing to pass a “conscience clause” that would unbind delegates and allow them to vote for whomever they want.
In a statement Friday, Trump dismissed the plots against him.
“I won almost 14 million votes, which is by far more votes than any candidate in the history of the Republican primaries,” Trump said. “I have tremendous support and get the biggest crowds by far and any such move would not only be totally illegal but also a rebuke of the millions of people who feel so strongly about what I am saying.”
He added, “People that I defeated soundly in the primaries will do anything to get a second shot — but there is no mechanism for it to happen.”
Delegates involved in the effort disagree, but their plans would require a high level of coordination among the thousands headed to Cleveland next month. Previous attempts to field a Trump opponent or to use convention rules to stop him have quickly fizzled, but the new push revives the possibility of a contested convention.
After weeks of fielding phone calls, emails and direct messages sent via Facebook and Twitter, Unruh is now partnered with Regina Thomson, another Colorado Republican delegate. They have recruited regional coordinators in Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Washington and other states.
Other top Republicans, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), said this week that they will not back Trump. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that he’s not yet ready to support Trump. And Richard Armitage, a deputy secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration who is close with other members of the party’s national security establishment, announced plans to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton if Trump is nominated by Republicans.
Eric Minor, a GOP delegate from Washington state, said he felt compelled to join Unruh’s group because “I hear a lot of people saying, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something about this?’ Well you know what, I’m one of the people who can. There’s only 2,400 of us. I’m going to reach out to us and see if there seems to be momentum for this. And if there is, we’ll see where it goes.”
Steve Lonegan, a veteran GOP operative from New Jersey, is not a delegate but is advising the group and helping them build financial support through a super PAC, Courageous Conservatives, that backed Cruz in the primary. The group has said it is willing to spend money on advertising and to help delegates across the country find each other.
Ever since Trump reached the threshold for clinching the GOP nomination last month, “I’ve woken up every day struggling to accept that he’s going to be our candidate,” Lonegan said. “He’s spent more time talking about getting Bernie Sanders voters to vote for him than conservatives. What do you think he has that Bernie Sanders’s supporters would like? A secret socialist agenda?”
Unruh, Minor, Lonegan and a number of others involved in the effort are former Cruz supporters, but insist they are not working on his behalf. Cruz has said that he would not accept the presidential nomination as a result of an attempt to strip Trump of the prize.
“This isn’t going to go away,” warned Cecil Stinemetz, a delegate from Iowa participating in the new campaign. “Trump or others might say that these are just little groups who won’t do anything and it’ll fizz out — that’s not going to happen. Trump just continues to embarrass himself and his party and this is not going to let up.”
Several factors will complicate any attempt to stop Trump.
First, Unruh’s plan to unbind the delegates will need support from a majority of the convention rules committee, which is scheduled to meet on July 14 and 15 — just a few days before the convention formally convenes. If the proposal passes the committee, it would need to be ratified by a majority of convention delegates the following week.
Secondly, several delegates are deeply concerned about what they claim are intimidation tactics by Trump, his campaign and some state party leaders.
One delegate, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, wrote in an email that during his state party’s first convention organizing meeting, party leaders told the delegation that if they don’t vote for Trump, “we would be removed from the floor and replaced with an alternate.”
Recruiting like-minded delegates may be difficult, because the Republican National Committee has yet to release a list of the thousands of people elected to travel to Cleveland as delegates or alternates. A final list of names from each state and territory was due to the RNC on Monday, and party officials are reviewing the names to ensure that no elected delegate or alternate has a criminal record, according to party officials.
Privately, some RNC officials say they doubt they will ever release a full list of the names, despite previous assurances that a list would be released in advance of the convention.
Another potential complication is that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and other top leaders have said delegates are required to reflect the results of state contests.
In response, a group of veteran Republican operatives is planning to raise up to $2.5 million to run an advertising campaign asserting that delegates can do whatever they want. The Citizens in Charge Foundation plans to bankroll the outreach campaign. It already paid for the publication of a book by Curly Haugland, a GOP delegate from North Dakota who wrote a book explaining why delegates are unbound.
“It’s not an effort for a candidate or against a candidate, but it’s an effort to educate people on what their real authority is and have them get the comfort that they’re not alone,” said Eric O’Keefe, a party operative based in Detroit who is a member of the group. “There’s a whole network of like-minded people.”
“This is not a play for Cruz or Kasich or Ryan,” O’Keefe said. “I trust the delegates that if they understand their authority, they’ll nominate a good ticket.”