CLEVELAND — For the first time in 36 years, there was a vote on the floor of a party’s nominating convention this past Monday that actually held an element of suspense.
In the hour or so ahead of a vote in which insurgents were attempting to reset the convention rules, Republican National Committee operatives circulated the floor and the back halls of Quicken Loans Arena, buttonholing delegates to argue why they should retract support for the motion, and getting them to sign their names to withdrawal forms. Trump aides, by contrast, bullied delegates with vague and ineffective threats.
In one corner of the arena floor, near CNN’s broadcast booth, delegates from the District of Columbia listened to appeals from high-ranking RNC officials.
The RNC’s argument to the D.C. delegates boiled down to this: A vote for the rules reset would open the door to Ted Cruz becoming the GOP’s nominee four years from now.
Cruz is already laying the groundwork for another run for president in 2020, but a top RNC official told Yahoo News that they expect him to run even if Donald Trump becomes president this fall. That would represent the first major challenge of an incumbent president from inside his own party since Teddy Kennedy ran against President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
“If Trump wins, you better bet your ass Cruz is going to primary him,” the RNC official told Yahoo News.
And so the RNC officials told D.C. delegates that a rules reset would open the door to an effort by a key Cruz ally, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, to close primary contests in several states to independent and Democratic voters. Cuccinelli and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, pushed for the closed primary in the convention rules committee meeting last week.
Closed primaries would exclude independents and limit the nomination process to registered Republicans, a more conservative voting group overall, which would favor Cruz.
The RNC official told D.C. delegates that they had signed on to “a movement by Mike Lee and Ken Cuccinelli and Ted Cruz to further close the primary system, as it relates to 2020.”
Two out of 11 D.C. delegates who were in favor of resetting the rules on Monday eventually withdrew their support for the measure, and that was enough to move the 19-member delegation’s support for the measure. The RNC accomplished this in three other states as well, and took the overall number of states in favor below the threshold of seven required to force the floor vote.
It’s not clear how much the argument against Cruz swayed the two D.C. delegates — there were other elements at play as well — but the fact that such an argument about Cruz was even made shows the odd circumstances that surround Cruz’s appearance on the convention stage Wednesday night to give a primetime speech.
Trump has gained the nomination, but even some of his strongest backers within the party concede they are not sure how he would govern as president. Cruz is attempting to establish himself as the leader for traditional conservatives, lying in wait no matter how things play out in November.