Good morning Austin:
Yesterday I followed a circuitous path through the streets of downtown Cleveland and waited for a very slow elevator to take me to the 16th floor of the Superior Building on Superior Avenue where, in the ad hoc offices of a brand new organization called Delegates Unbound, I met Curly Haugland,
It was not exactly like making my way into the Sierra Maestra Mountains to meet Fidel Castro before the Revolution, because, of course, in this case, the stakes are higher.
That was just about deposing an island dictator and creating a Communist state 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
This is about stopping Donald Trump from becoming sovereign of The Free World.
Haugland, Curly, is a character from Bismarck, N.D. who has co-written what has become the downloadable Bible of the Stop Trump movement – Unbound: The Conscience of a Republican Delegate.
Some background, from a Politico profile by Erick Trickey (not a bad name in its own right), way back in May.
Curly Haugland loves the rules. The stubborn 69-year-old pool-supply magnate is North Dakota’s top Republican gadfly, its rule-mongering crank, its official state pain in the ass. On the national GOP’s standing rules committee, he’s been the pedantic curmudgeon, the stubborn speed bump who for years has raised points of order only to watch establishment Republicans stampede over him.
Yet now, as his party teeters on the edge of civil war, Haugland has become one of the most dangerous men in politics: He’s the mainstream GOP’s last hope to deny Donald Trump the Republican nomination in Cleveland. It would take a miracle—and almost certainly lead to a historic split in the party—but there is still a way, buried in the labyrinthine rulebook, that the party could free delegates from their obligation to vote for Trump. To get there, the convention’s rules committee would need to travel a perilous road. But nobody knows the terrain better than Haugland, a self-taught maverick expert on the Republican convention rules, who has spent a decade pushing schemes to take power away from Republican primary voters and give it back to party insiders.
There is one article of faith in the Republican Party: On the convention’s first ballot, bound delegates are required to vote for the candidate to whom they’re bound. What you need to know about Haugland’s radical vision is this: He insists that’s not the case. Haugland has been trumpeting this nuclear option for months. In March, he blasted out a letter to fellow Republican National Committee members with the subject line: “NEWS FLASH: All Republican Delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention are Unbound!” He’s on a mission to let all the delegates at the convention in Cleveland to vote however they’d like on the first ballot, no matter whom their state’s voters chose.
This has long seemed like a crazy cause—who doesn’t want voters to decide? Back when Haugland was advocating the party assert its independence from a sitting Republican president, George W. Bush, Curlyism was viewed as a kind of benign, obscure heresy. But could this be the year Haugland’s strange view of the primary—that the party, not voters, chooses the nominee, as he often insists—finds its moment? In April, Eric O’Keefe, a Cruz supporter and Club for Growth activist, told the Wall Street Journal that he would lobby Republican delegates to assert their right to reject Trump at the convention. (O’Keefe did not return an email seeking comment.) Trump’s old pal Roger Stone has predicted for months that the Republican establishment would try to snatch the nomination from Trump at the convention, even if he won a pledged-delegate majority. Now that Trump’s opposition has dropped out, “the whole scenario is far, far less likely,” Stone says—but, he admits, it could still happen. “The Republican convention can do whatever it wants,” he says. “You can’t bring a lawsuit. There’s no jurisdiction.”
Now, as #NeverTrump conservatives begin to turn their attention to the possibility of a third-party candidate, it’s clear many GOP leaders are still deeply opposed to Trump as the nominee. The question is: How unhappy are they? And how far are they willing to go to stop him on the floor in Cleveland? Haugland knows the weird contours, obscure clauses and contradictory history of the party’s governing rules—so he knows the last, desperate hand the #NeverTrump crowd could play. He says he’s not taking sides in the presidential race—and, oddly enough, he even praises Trump. Still, now that Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, all that stands in the way of the Trump Train is the idea Haugland champions: that the party can rewrite the convention rules to undo the voters’ choice.
I am repeating this image of the Superior Building because Haugland asked that I not take a photo of him. He figures he probably has a lot of enemies in Cleveland, and the fewer people who can recognize him the better.
As it happens, Haugland said he is not really a part of the effort to stop Trump, to whom he is largely indifferent. What he is about is defending the prerogatives of the delegates. That is also of paramount importance to Dane Waters, the founder of Delegates Unbound, who was seated alongside Haugland, and who agrees with Haugland that the best system for a party selecting a nominee would be scrap presidential primaries and caucuses altogether, and instead have each state to hold conventions, elect delegates – like North Dakota does now – that are not bound to any candidate, and come together in Cleveland or wherever and choose the best candidate to bear their party’s standard.
But to Waters, a Floridian who is “founder, president and co-chairman of the Initiative & Referendum Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about the initiative and referendum process” – Trump being the most “toxic” potential nominee of his lifetime, offers a ripe – and urgent – opportunity to assert delegates’ rightful role.
This cuts against the popular grain that the popular will must be respected, that Trump won fair and square and it would be reneging on democracy to deny him now. But Waters scoffs at all that. Trump was, he said, altogether, the choice of less than half of Republican voters, and a tiny fraction of all registered voters, and besides, “It’s absurd for the RNC to sit there and say because you voted for someone in February you still have to be bound to that someone in July.”
I wrote in today’s paper about the effort of some Texas delegates, notably former Travis Country Republican Chairman James Dickey, to unbind the delegates and stop Trump.
Republicans, Dickey believes, ought to be more republican, and not neuter the delegates and deny them their deliberative function. Pure democracy can have untoward outcomes, said Dickey, who was defeated for re-election as county chairman this year by Robert Morrow, a man whose personal eccentricities are only exceeded by his exotic political worldview, but who Travis County voters preferred to the sober and experienced Dickey apparently because of his more pleasing last name and superior ballot placement.
Dickey fears that, with Trump, Republicans nationally are in danger of repeating the folly of Travis Country Republicans.
In any case, within hours of my encounter with Curly, the Trump campaign was trumpeting a victory in federal court in a case in which a delegate – Beau Correll Jr. – a Cruz supporter who was bound to vote for Trump, went to court seeking to be unbound because he believed Trump “is unfit to serve as President of the United States” and that voting for him would violate his conscience.
From the Trump campaign:
Federal Court Sides With Grassroots Activists: RNC Delegates Are Bound to Follow Election Results
Delegates Remain Committed to Donald J. Trump;
Anti-Trump Effort Dealt Crippling Blow
(New York) July 11, 2016 – Senior United States District Judge Robert E. Payne today ruled in favor of Trump campaign delegates who had argued – in line with overwhelming public opinion – that RNC delegates must follow election results and that delegates cannot be stolen at the national convention. Delegate Beau Correll, Jr., had brought the suit against the Commonwealth of Virginia hoping to reject the will of the voters, but was soundly defeated.
Specifically, the Court found that RNC Rule 16, which binds delegates based on their election results, “is in effect presently and that it controls the allocation and binding of delegates as to their voting at convention.” (p. 6) The Court held that the Plaintiff’s “expert testimony” from Erling ‘Curly’ Haugland was not credible, lacked “textual support,” (p.6) and that “delegates are bound by RNC Rule 16.” (p. 7)
Further, the Court found that by signing the “Declaration and Statement of Qualification,” RNC delegates are bound by RNC Rule 16(c)(2) (p. 10), and that this Declaration obligated Correll to vote in accordance with Republican Party rules and Virginia’s election results. (p. 46)
Trump Campaign Attorney and former FEC Chairman Don McGahn issued the following statement:
“The court has confirmed what we have said all along: Rule 16 is in effect and thus delegates, including Correll, are bound to vote in accordance with the election results. The court did not buy what Curly Haugland was selling, and noted that his testimony has no support in the rule’s text and was contradicted by his own book, Unbound. This case puts his unbound theory to rest, and is a fatal blow to the Anti-Trump agitators.”
But that was not the universal take on the federal court ruling.
From Free the Delegates, an organization allied with Delegates Unbound, launched by Cruz supporters in Colorado.
Trump loses key court battle!
The suit, which alleged that such a law violates the First Amendment rights of delegates, was brought by Beau Correll — a Virginia delegate and a founding member of Free the Delegates.
“Delegates to the Republican National Convention who cherish their freedom of speech, association, and voting their conscience applaud today’s favorable decision by the federal court. This ruling establishes fresh precedent that the Rules Committee, all delegates to the Convention, and the Trump campaign themselves must take heed of. The strong-arm of the government has no business commandeering the actions of private individuals in private organizations, such as political parties.
As more than 20 states are now in play from a Constitutional perspective, it is my hope that this shall be known as a turning point leading to Cleveland. The advisable action, whether seen from a legal, moral, political or defense-of-our-republic standpoint is to allow delegates, elected by their peers and Republican constituencies, to support who they wish as the nominee for President of the United States.
To national political figures that are on the sidelines and awaiting your calling, I implore you to take a step forward from the darkness and into the light. Show us that you have the courage to stand for Leader of the Free World, appeal to the better angels of our nature, and to deliver this Republic from the abomination of a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency.”
This is a victory that puts upwards of 20 states in play, and could upend Donald Trump’s path to victory as more states unbind their delegates.
The decision is here
So what gives?
Here was the Republican National Committee response:
What is going on here is that the court found that the state’s cannot punish delegates if they fail to vote as bound, but that doesn’t mean that the party can’t oblige its delegates to vote as bound.
From the Washington Times:
CLEVELAND — Virginia cannot impose criminal penalties on Republican convention delegates who refuse to vote for Donald Trump but the GOP can still force them to back the billionaire businessman, a federal judge ruled Monday.
Mr. Trump’s campaign said the decision clears the path for him to collect the nomination next week in Cleveland, saying Judge Robert E. Payne dealt a “fatal blow to the anti-Trump agitators.”
The agitators, however, said they live to fight another day, saying they always knew they would have to try to change the Republican National Committee’s rules at the convention. But at least now, they said, they won’t also have to worry about the additional penalties in state laws.
“The layers of the onion are being unpeeled,” said Carroll Correll Jr., a delegate to the convention who sued to overturn Virginia’s law.
With the opening of the convention a week away, delegates are already beginning to convene in Cleveland to hash out the party’s platform, to debate the convention rules and settle last-minute fights over the composition of the delegations.
(Carroll I guess is Beau, just like Curly is Erling.)
The federal court noted that under existing party Rule 16, the the national Republican Party requires that delegates be bound by their state’s primary, caucus or state convention results.
But, Haugland said that is irrelevant, that that rule will have no bearing on the convention, which will adopt its own rules as its second order of business Monday after approving the Credentials Committee report.
Instead, Haugland points to Rule 37, which would enable any delegates who object to how their votes were cast by the chair of their state delegation when the presidential roll is called, to demand that the roll of the delegation be taken, enabling them to recast their votes in accordance with their conscience, and not the voters in their state.
In the end, I think former Texas Republican State Chairman Steve Munisteri, who is a convention consultant to the RNC in Cleveland, has it right.
The decision of whether the delegates to the convention will be bound to vote as pledged rests with the delegates. If a majority of delegates want to unbind, they will be unbound. If a majority of the delegates are ready and willing to overthrow Trump, they can do that.
But they probably won’t.
As Munisteri has noted, to stop Trump you need an alternative, and there does not appear to be any candidate ready to lead the coup, or even be the beneficiary of it.
Waters said he is confident that if the delegates are unbound, “a white knight” will emerge.
From Kevin Diaz at the Houston Chronicle
Cruz delegate Kendal Unruh, a Colorado activist and a leader of the group Free the Delegates, said in an interview that the coalition includes backers of all of Trump’s primary rivals. “It’s heavily weighted towards Cruz,” she said, “but there’s nobody’s fingerprints on this.”
If not Trump, who?
Opponents of the anti-Trump rebellion point to the lack of a consensus alternative as the movement’s most glaring weakness. To Unruh, that has been its strength, distancing the effort from any particular candidate.
“I call it the Vanna White effect,” she said, referring to the hostess of TV’s “Wheel of Fortune.” “It wouldn’t have worked to have a candidate involved.”
White knight? Vanna White?