Republican battle for delegates rife with suspicion

Lisa Lerer
Associated Press

New York – — Tensions frayed on Monday, as Donald Trump tried to stave off the prospect of a lengthy battle to the Republican nomination with a big victory in New York.

Trump complained about a “rigged” nomination process prompting a fierce defense from party leaders. Campaigning in southern California, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz described Trump’s attacks on the Republican nomination process as “whining.” Trump erupted on Fox News on Monday morning over his loss of recently allocated delegates in Colorado to Cruz.

“Donald has been yelling and screaming. A lot of whining. I’m sure some cursing. And some late-night fevered tweeting,” Cruz told hundreds of supporters gathered in Irvine, Calif.

He noted Trump’s complaints follow his struggles in recent primary contests in Utah, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Colorado.

At a rally in Rochester on Sunday, Trump had blasted the way the country chooses presidential party nominees as “corrupt” and “crooked” — a sentiment echoed by surrogates and supporters who appear increasingly troubled by Cruz’s superior efforts when it comes to wrangling delegates.

“I see it with Bernie (Sanders) too,” Trump told Fox News Monday, pointing to the Democratic race. “Every time I turn on your show — Bernie wins, Bernie wins, Bernie wins. And yet Bernie’s not winning. I mean, it’s a rigged system folks.”

Voting integrity questioned

Trump’s accusations come as he seeks to outmaneuver Cruz in local state gatherings where the delegates who will attend the summer convention are being chosen. In state after state, Cruz’s campaign has implemented a more strategic approach to picking up delegates, which, despite Trump’s current lead, are essential if he wants to reach the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination.

The complaints call into question the integrity of the voting process at a time when the party could be working to unify behind its front-runner. In an interview with conservative radio host Mike Gallagher, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, pushed back against Trump’s claims, saying that the convention system used in Colorado is “not an affront to the people of Colorado. It just is what the rule is.”

“I don’t know why a majority is such a difficult concept for some people to accept,” he said.

Michigan had its own brush with controversy following the state GOP convention over the weekend, where Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof stoked suspicions among conspiracy-alert conservative activists by wearing the presidential delegate credential for a candidate he’s not supporting.

Meekhof, a Republican National Convention alternate for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, appeared at a Saturday meeting of Michigan’s delegates wearing the credentials name badge of state Sen. Jack Brandenburg, a delegate for Trump.

“Trucker” Randy Bishop, a Kasich alternate, said he noticed Meekhof wearing Brandenburg’s credentials and voting with the delegates on rules changes. It occurred in a meeting that led to Kasich and Trump’s delegations blocking delegates for Cruz from any seats on powerful national convention committees.

He accused Meekhof on his northern Michigan radio show of “voting illegally ... with somebody’s else’s credentials.”

“... Arlan Meekhof was the tying vote that basically made the Cruz people’s motions fail,” Bishop said.

Michigan Republican Party officials said Monday that Meekhof was voting as a Kasich delegate in place of Betsy DeVos, the former party chairwoman who received a Kasich delegate seat.

DeVos did not attend the convention, though, so Meekhof was elevated from his first alternate spot to vote in her place, said Sarah Anderson, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party.

Meekhof was given Brandenburg’s Trump credential because it contained an orange card to distinguish voting delegates from alternates with pink cards.

“I was only going to recognize votes from people with orange cards,” said Eric Doster, general counsel of the Michigan Republican Party, who chaired the delegate meeting.

Doster said Bishop and Cruz supporters didn’t raise any issue with Meekhof during the meeting.

Meekhof, R-West Olive, referred all questions Monday to Doster. “It’s interesting that Trucker Randy is the chair of District 1, and he doesn’t even know the rules,” he said.

Tensions were high during the meeting because the Cruz camp thought it had a deal with Kasich’s forces to share Michigan’s seats on the convention committees, which set rules and determine who is eligible to vote.

Rules committee holds sway

The Rules Committee could decide whether Kasich is eligible to be considered at the national convention if he fails to win eight states or primaries, said Wendy Day, a Cruz delegate who ran his primary campaign in Michigan.

Forty-two rules govern the Republican Party and how it picks a presidential candidate. Yet with the nomination potentially up for grabs at July’s GOP convention in Cleveland, one reality prevails: Delegates can change their procedures to help or hurt any candidate they want.

Trump the front-runner has 743 of the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. That’s less than 200 better than Cruz, his closest competitor.

As they stand, the GOP’s rules cover lots of ground. They describe how delegates are divided among the 56 states and territories, who gets into the convention hall, who can be nominated, how votes are cast and how disputes are resolved.

These bylaws are temporary. This year’s convention will be governed by whichever rules the delegates approve by majority vote when their four-day gathering begins July 18.

The Republican National Committee is already working on rules to present to the convention. But it’s the convention delegates — initially a 112-member rules committee, then all 2,472 of them — who’ll have final say.

This year, there may not be a presumptive nominee as the convention begins.

It’s quite possible that this gathering will be the GOP’s first since 1976 that will be competitive, with no candidate owning a majority of delegates. Candidates’ campaigns would compete for support for rules advantageous to them, with behind-the-scenes bargaining rampant.

Trump and Cruz could have enough delegates combined to form an alliance for rules that would make it all but impossible for a third rival to emerge. On the other hand, Republicans looking to block the two leaders could seek support for rules making it easier for a savior like House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has voiced disinterest, to gallop in and become the nominee.

While most delegates must initially vote for the nominee they’re elected to represent, they don’t have to back that contender’s preferred rules package. The candidates personally select only about a quarter of the delegates, leaving many who might secretly prefer a different contender. Campaigns are aggressively recruiting supporters to become delegates.

“Without knowing who the delegates are and who they’re sympathetic to,” said Josh Putnam, a University of Georgia lecturer and delegate process expert, “trying to assess what the convention is likely to do is next to impossible.”

Currently, candidates are nominated by submitting petitions showing support by most delegates from eight states and territories.

That was changed for the 2012 convention from a lower bar: A plurality of signatures — more than any competitor — of five states’ delegates. Backers of the 2012 presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, forced that change to prevent time-consuming speeches by supporters of a vanquished contender, then Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

That rule could be weakened to allow more competition.

If no one gets a first ballot majority, things could quickly sour for Trump. While various state laws and rules “bind” around 9 in 10 delegates to vote for their candidate in the first round, about 7 in 10 are allowed to support whoever they want on the second ballot, with even more freed up later.

Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.