CLEVELAND ― Just blocks from the arena where Donald Trump is to become the Republican Party’s nominee for president, the resistance movement trying to stop it from happening is plotting its final stand.
On the 16th floor of a century-old skyscraper, a handful of staff for Delegates Unbound sit at laptops, making phone calls and sending emails to the 2,472 GOP delegates. More volunteers are on the way to the newly rented office suite, it is promised. But even with dozens manning the phones and computer keyboards, anti-Trump leaders concede it will not be an easy fight.
“It’s very important for the world to see ― that not every Republican is in lockstep with Donald Trump,” said Delegates Unbound leader Dane Waters, explaining why the fight is worth having, even if it fails.
What gives Waters and his allies hope, though, is that Trump does not command the personal loyalty of a majority of the delegates. Unlike a typical Republican nominee who has been active in local politics for years before moving up the ranks, Trump started his run with no grassroots support. Instead, he relied on his celebrity to win primary votes, and that hasn’t always translated into backing from traditional Republicans, who make up the vast majority of the convention delegates.
“If Donald Trump truly has the support he says he has, he shouldn’t be concerned if delegates vote their consciences,” Waters said. “Whatever they’re saying, they’re concerned.”
Randy Evans, an RNC member from Georgia who has been keeping a careful tally of the nearly 2,500 delegates, said that although 1,457 are currently required by party rules to vote for Trump, the celebrity businessman could only count on 888 delegates loyal to him personally in a rules battle. But Evans said Trump can also rely on 903 delegates who will do whatever Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wants, with the remaining 800 supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other former candidates.
“The combination of Reince Priebus delegates and Trump delegates will give him well over two-thirds,” Evans said.
And that’s the main problem Delegates Unbound and the allied Free the Delegates groups confront: They must overcome not only the Trump campaign ― which appears to be spending more organizational effort holding onto the nomination than fighting Democrat Hillary Clinton ― but the RNC itself.
Priebus called the dump Trump efforts “mostly chatter among sore losers” on Sean Hannity’s radio talk show Monday. And in the RNC Rules Committee meeting Tuesday, chairman Bruce Ash scolded Republicans still attacking Trump. “Some of our party have decided they know better than the voters,” he said.
To succeed, the anti-Trump groups face a two-step process. The first takes place this week, in the Convention Rules Committee, which is charged with drafting the rules guiding next week’s nominating convention. One of those rules will address whether the delegates must vote according to the results of their home states and congressional districts, as the RNC rules for this election have stated, or if they can instead choose to vote their conscience, if they feel they cannot support Trump.
Colorado delegate and Free the Delegates founder Kendal Unruh originally had hoped to nail down votes from 57 of the 112 committee members, enough to pass her proposed “conscience clause” exception. With the committee’s approval in hand, she argued, the full convention would readily follow.
But in recent days, Unruh has instead emphasized her confidence in winning 28 votes ― enough for a “minority report” that would require a full vote of the convention.
All 2,472 delegates must approve the rules on the first day of the convention. RNC members said they are not worried about the dissidents somehow prevailing with just a minority report, which is likely to get voted down well outside of evening, prime-time hours.
“Basically, who cares?” said one top RNC member on condition of anonymity. “I think this thing has run its course.”
The anti-Trumpers enjoyed one high point this week: a ruling from a federal judge striking down a Virginia law requiring delegates to vote for the winner of the state’s primary. Some two dozen states have similar laws, and Trump opponents hope that delegates will be more willing to declare their independence once they understand they will not face prosecution.
“Nearly everyone who is not a Trump delegate is opposed to Trump. There’s a huge softness with Trump delegates,” said Gordon Humphrey, a former New Hampshire senator who is working with Waters in Cleveland this week.
Humphrey said he understood those who argue that the delegates’ job is to reflect the choice of voters back home. But with a “sociopath” like Trump, the rules have to be different, he said.
“In a normal year, with a normal candidate, that would be a simple process. The convention ratifies the will of the people,” Humphrey said. “This is not a normal year. We do not have a normal candidate. We have an abnormal candidate.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.