Early skirmishes will tell whether trouble looms for Donald Trump in Cleveland

The odds are rather slim that Republicans will refuse Donald Trump their nomination for president when they gather in Cleveland in 18 days.

The real drama may be whether the TV cameras showcase a four-day coronation, or an unscripted reality show in which back-stage tensions spill onto the convention floor, upending Republicans’ last best chance to show themselves solidly behind a polarizing nominee.

The direction of the Republican National Convention will be largely decided in the week before the gavel falls. Before 5,000 delegates and alternates assemble, an advance squad of slightly more than 200 delegates, members of the Republican platform and rules committees, will determine what kind of potency the never-Trump movement will have — if any.

Randy Evans, who will be there, sees money and coordination behind insurgent skirmishers — down to a conservative newspaper columnist’s declaration that he no longer considers himself a Republican.

“The ability to pull off running ads, filing a lawsuit, having George Will make his announcement, coordinating a call among all the delegates, making sure that every member of the rules committee received at least three emails requesting their support — the list goes on and on,” he said. “That tells me that somebody with big bucks is behind it.”

Four Georgians — RNC bylaws require one man and one woman from every state and territory for major committees — will take part in these early tests of strength: Evans, the Atlanta attorney and longtime RNC member, and Anne Lewis, counsel to the Georgia GOP, are part of a 112-member rules committee. Scott Johnson, a former Cobb County GOP chairman and a top Ted Cruz supporter in Georgia, and Rayna Casey, Trump’s chief fundraiser in Georgia, will be members of a like-sized platform committee.

Efforts to contact Lewis and Casey were unsuccessful.

Evans will support the status quo, supporting the Trump and RNC effort to tamp down rebellions — or at least see that they do no damage. Evans is a lifelong confidante of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who remains on Trump's short list of running-mate possibilities.

Johnson, who headed up Cruz’ extensive grassroots operations in Georgia, says he’ll support the convention’s nominee. But as a member of the platform committee, which meets first, Johnson could become part of an early test of clout for non-Trump factions in Cleveland.

In Donald Trump, Republicans would have a nominee who diverges from many traditional GOP positions. His threats in Pennsylvania this week to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and his promise not to cut entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare both run counter to the 2012 GOP platform.

Trump’s non-reaction to this week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Texas restrictions on abortion clinics has worried social conservatives. So has the billionaire’s nonchalance when it comes to the newer issue of transgender persons and bathrooms.

I asked Johnson whether we would see a social conservative revolt in Cleveland. He said no. Most GOP positions on issues like abortion are likely to remain unchanged. Even the 2012 plank that declares marriage to be a union of one man and one woman probably will remain untouched — no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court said last year.

“I think it’s valid to keep the traditional view of marriage in the platform,” Johnson said.

But he hedged when I asked about a plank in support of the new North Carolina “religious liberty” law that requires transgender persons to use public restrooms that correspond with their birth sex.

“We [will] talk about limiting executive power rather than talk about bathrooms,” Johnson suggested. “It is time for Congress to stand up and say, “That’s our job and not yours.’”

Now, such a plank could apply to that letter of “guidance” from President Barack Obama, detailing how transgender students should be treated in public schools. But it also sounded suspiciously like a sentence from Marco Rubio’s reasoning for deciding to seek another term in the U.S. Senate.

“If [Trump] is elected, we will need senators willing to encourage him in the right direction, and if necessary, stand up to him,” the Florida senator said last week.

Johnson led me to believe I wasn’t mistaken. “To instruct a candidate in that way — there’s value in that, whether it’s a Democratic president or Republican president. That should make everyone more comfortable, whether that’s Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. All three candidates need to hear it,” he said.

Party platforms are somewhat expendable, whether Democratic or Republican. Presidential nominees have been known to simply ignore them – and so a platform fight could become the venue that allows anti-Trump forces to vent.

Not so the rules committee, which meets afterwards. There, the object of anti-Trump forces will be to unbind the 1,500 or so delegates – a hundred or so more than necessary for the nomination — now pledged to Trump.

Their goal, Evans said, will be to find 28 anti-Trump votes — one quarter of the voting strength of the entire rules committee. Evans will be among those trying to pull the plug on the effort. “But I understand [the anti-Trump] strategy, and it’s not a bad strategy,” he said.

With 28 votes, anti-Trump forces could demand a minority report that contains its own recommendations and would be eligible for debate by the full convention. What recommendations, you ask?

Why, something called the “Speaker Paul Ryan Conscientious Objection Rule” – named in honor of the U.S. House speaker. Though Ryan has endorsed Trump, he has also said that delegates should follow their hearts when it came to the nomination.

As we said, Trump’s 1,500 or so pledged delegates are only required to vote for him on the first round of the nomination process. They are not bound to him on procedural votes. So on the floor, a pledged Trump delegate could vote to be released from his or her own pledge.

Evans estimates that Trump would have 900 solid votes on the convention floor. Anti-Trump forces have between 650 and 700. The remaining of the 2,472 delegates would determine the outcome. Trump opponents would need well over half of those swing votes.

Many of those swing votes will be elected officials whose fate could be tied to the top of the GOP ticket. Polls are now important. Much of what happens in Cleveland will depend on what the Republican presidential presumptive says and does between now and July 11, when the preliminary festivities begin.

In other words, don’t be surprised if you see Donald Trump suddenly glued to his TelePrompter.


Starting in Iowa and New Hampshire, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has brought you every key moment in the 2016 presidential race. A team of AJC journalists will be at next month’s Republican and Democratic national conventions, continuing to provide that deep coverage.

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