Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus made the rounds of all five major Sunday talk shows today, selling the line that all is going swimmingly in the GOP’s primary elections, with delegates selected through an orderly process that will lead to the ultimate decision on a nominee at the national convention in July.
However, outside the set of the Sunday shows, the picture was very different. Backroom deal making in Tennessee saw delegates loyal to other candidates selected to fill seats won by Donald Trump. The North Dakota State convention was roiled by arguments over how its delegates would vote. And Trump surrogate Roger Stone continued to promise “Days of Rage” style demonstrations in Cleveland if his candidate is deprived of the nomination by intraparty scheming.
Priebus, meanwhile, also had to address the issue of the leading candidate’s electability, after a scandal-filled week involving his campaign manager’s arrest, and his own controversial statements about issues from abortion to nuclear weapons. According to the latest polling, Trump is wildly unpopular with key demographic groups, including women, Hispanics, and African Americans.
“Look, every candidate has positives and every candidate has challenges that you have to overcome in the general election,” Priebus said, before giving Trump credit for what he called “historic” voter turnout numbers.
“I understand that we’ve got some drama on our side of the aisle that we’re going to have to contend with, and we’ll be prepared to like never before,” he promised.
But the drama within the party itself is going to play out long before the general election gets underway.
Over the weekend, the Trump campaign accused the Tennessee Republican Party of giving at least five delegates won by the New York billionaire to people who are actually supporters of Ted Cruz, the Texas senator currently in second place. Those delegates will be bound by state rules to vote for Trump on the first two ballots. But in a convention that looks more and more likely to go to multiple ballots, they would be allowed to vote their own preference after that.
Trump’s campaign director for the state, Darren Morris, told The Tennessean newspaper that delegate slots that were supposed to go to people nominated directly by the Trump campaign were instead being filled by “establishment picks” and said similar shenanigans are taking place across the country “to steal a vote here, steal a delegate there, to affect the outcome of the convention in July and take the nomination away from Donald Trump.”
Meanwhile, in North Dakota over the weekend, the state Republican Party convention ground to a halt in a dispute over whom its delegates would support. North Dakota sends 28 delegates to the national convention, but there is no primary election. Instead of voting for a candidate at the polls, party members vote for individuals, who go to the convention with no obligation to support a specific candidate.
In a raucous session on the floor, the state party beat back a movement to force individuals named to a slate of delegates to declare their preferred candidate. It remained unclear Sunday afternoon just who would benefit from the confusion in North Dakota, but there was concern among some Trump supporters that the state party’s insiders would try to engineer an outcome more favorable to an establishment candidate than to a brash outsider like Trump.
The complaints about Tennessee and North Dakota came just days after it was revealed that despite losing to Trump in Louisiana, Cruz would come away with more delegates than his rival because of post-primary horse-trading in which his representatives outmaneuvered Trump’s.
On Sunday, Priebus tried to make the point that this was business-as-usual for a presidential primary, and made it clear that part of the job of a serious candidate is to develop a ground game in each state with skilled representatives familiar with their individual rules and idiosyncrasies.
However, that’s not likely to fly with Trump’s most ardent supporters. Stone, trump’s former campaign manager who has retained close toes to the billionaire, has called for massive protests in Cleveland against what he’s calling “the Big Steal.” He repeatedly referred to the demonstrations as comparable to the “Days of Rage” Vietnam War protests that roiled Chicago in October 1969.
“Come to Cleveland,” Stone urged Trump supporters in an appearance on the radio show hosted by conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter Alex Jones. “Don’t let the big steal go forward without massive protest. Peaceful, nonviolent protest. So, as they used to say, don’t wait for orders from headquarters. Ride to the sound of the guns.
I don’t mean to imply violence on that. I mean, ride to where the action will be. We have to let the Republican bosses and the kingmakers and the insiders and the lobbyists know that we’re not going to stand for the big steal. So if you are a Trump supporter, make plans now. Take a bus! Hitchhike! Carpool! Take a train! Fly, if you can afford it. We need you in Cleveland.”