News & Politics

As Contested Convention Looms, Attention Turns to the Convention Chairman

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

About a dozen members of the Republican National Committee met at RNC headquarters on Tuesday to discuss the mechanics of how a contested convention would work. Joining them were another couple dozen prominent party activists. No representatives from either of the leading candidates were invited.


The meeting at the RNC’s Capitol Hill headquarters included discussion about bound delegates and how the party will organize the timing of multiple rounds of balloting, according to operatives who attended.

RNC officials made the case that there is plenty of time built in during the convention to strategize between ballots, according to one attendee.
Leading the session were Sean Spicer, the party’s senior strategist; Katie Walsh, the RNC chief of staff; and John Phillippe, the chief counsel.

Spicer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The operatives in attendance included Trent Duffy, former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, Matt Schlapp, Ron Bonjean, Phil Musser, Doug Heye and Ryan Williams.

The meeting occurred before the Wisconsin results were official, although everyone knew that Cruz was going to win. But the margin of victory by Cruz made their discussions even more timely and vital. Nate Silver projects that Trump will now receive 1179-1183 delegates by the time the Cleveland convention convenes, after Cruz ended up taking 36 of the 42 delegates available in Wisconsin.

I’m sure there’s zero enthusiasm by the RNC for a contested convention, no matter how much they hate Trump and Cruz. So that meeting yesterday was probably a pretty gloomy affair — an acknowledgment that they are going to have to find some way to limit the damage and emerge from the convention with a fighting chance in November.

The first step is getting the rules squared away. Talk about the potential for blood on the convention floor, you will find it in the obscurity and obtuseness of party rules governing delegates and balloting.

Some in the RNC seem bound and determined to start a war. And the rules may be as good a place as any.


Longtime RNC rules committee member Curly Haugland claims all of the 2,472 GOP delegates are unbound to vote for whomever they want, citing various RNC rules. But the RNC has countered back saying it’s not true. When asked about the rules surrounding the delegates and if they are unbound, RNC spokesman Lindsay Walters told CNBC they are not: “Delegates are bound according to the rules written by the state party.”

But through research conducted by CNBC, RNC rules or not, a political party has power over the states and could override their binding rules, according to two Supreme Court rulings: Cousins v. Wigoda in 1975 and Democratic Party v. Wisconsin ex rel. La Follette, 1981.

“The RNC probably can exercise that power to bind or unbind,” said Gregory Magarian, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. “But what matters here is not the law but politics. Reaction from the voters, delegates, party regulars saying if the RNC stepped in it would be ‘unfair and improper.’ This is more about structural politics. As a matter of law the RNC could step in and do whatever it wants to do. But if they stepped in it would be seen as a power grab.”

What has happened in the past (but not for decades) is that if a state party chairman heard of a delegate wavering on his commitment to vote for the candidate he was supposed to, the state chair would yank that delegate and substitute an alternate. At any rate, being a Republican does not mean you’ve joined a suicide cult. The RNC wouldn’t dare meddle in that fashion.

At least not openly. But the most powerful individual at the convention will not be either of the candidates, or RNC Chairman Priebus. The permanent chairman of the convention will have the power and will  hold the gavel — and probably the fate of the Republican Party — in his hands.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will take his seat as the permanent chair of the convention shortly after the opening ceremonies are concluded. Almost from the instant he gavels the convention to order, he is likely to be up to his neck in controversy. And being a strong party man, he will do as the party asks while hoping he can pull it off without appearing to be a partisan.

What the party is asking of him may be impossible: work to forge some kind of unity out of the coming chaos so that the Republican Party isn’t destroyed in November.


Cruz, the Texas senator who is in second place in the delegate race, said at last week’s Republican presidential debate in Miami he is preparing for a contested convention against Trump. He warned it would be “absolute disaster” for the party to go along with those who “want to parachute in their favored Washington candidate to be the nominee.”

Against this backdrop, Ryan faces some of the same types of hazards as the Republican convention chairman that he’s been been facing in the U.S. House in his five months as speaker — only more public and on a grander scale.

Schmidt said Ryan knows he must try to keep the Republican Party glued together in a year in when it is deeply divided, and that Trump is much of the cause of the divisions. But he also must be seen as a neutral arbiter of the rules.

Yet, the convention rules are negotiable, Schmidt said. He and others noted the rules committee will have been meeting in the days before Ryan even officially gavels in the convention on July 18. “The party leadership can rewrite the process in the interest of the United States democracy, and the GOP” said Schmidt.

With Trump already claiming the GOP is trying to “steal” the nomination from him, the candidate is guaranteeing Götterdämmerung on the convention floor. And with Thug-in-Chief Roger Stone casually letting on that he will be handing out the hotel room numbers of delegates opposing Donald Trump to supporters, the possibility of giving the term “floor fight” a new, violent meaning becomes real.

Through all of this, Ryan must not only try and steer the convention the way the party wants, but do it in a way that won’t lead to a fatal fracturing. The convention will operate by House rules, meaning that Ryan has to be up to speed on the ins and outs of parliamentary maneuvering. His decisions on whom to recognize, whom to ignore, whom to cut off, and who should speak have to be seen at least by some as impartial. This will be especially important if there is more than one ballot, where switches could decide the nomination if one candidate is close enough to 1237.

In past conventions, the role of the chairman has been largely ceremonial — a reward to a party leader for years of faithful service. The entire four-day event was carefully scripted to prevent just such a scenario that will probably unfold in Cleveland,

A case study of the dangers of such a course is the Democratic Convention(s) of 1860.

Democrats arrived in Charleston that year ready to hand the nomination to Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, a key figure in the slavery debates of the 1850s. Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine enunciated at one of the pivotal debates with Abraham Lincoln in 1858 had become a cause of concern for the fire eaters in the South who perceived Douglas as someone who would limit their rights as slaveholders.

What was once thought to be a coronation of Douglas turned ugly when a dozen southern states walked out of the convention, preventing him from winning two thirds of the delegates and the nomination. The party reconvened in June, but this time, the “establishment” Democrats rigged the rules and made sure pro-Douglas delegates were seated. It was still mayhem and the second walkout by the south doomed Douglas’s candidacy.

This tidbit of history is relevant today because while Trump delegates might not walk out, they and Trump’s millions of supporters would almost certainly stay home on election day. A party fractured is a party doomed and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to mend what ails Republicans if the party elders appear to be throwing the nomination to a favorite like Paul Ryan or another candidate who wouldn’t deserve it.

Ryan may want the nomination, but even he must see that his future in the Republican Party would be over if he made an overt effort to get it. For a youngish man like Ryan who has already achieved one of the pinnacles in politics, it wouldn’t make sense to have the entire party up in arms by challenging Cruz and Trump.