The Republican Convention's 'nuclear option'

Why the RNC rules committee really matters
Why the RNC rules committee really matters

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Story highlights

  • One RNC veteran is suggesting freeing all convention delegates from their commitments to back specific candidates
  • The 'nuclear option' could fracture the Republican Party, but as the race continues without resolution, there's no end to speculation

(CNN)Call it the Republican convention's nuclear option: GOP delegates fly into Cleveland and are freed from voting for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or even John Kasich.

From the first ballot on, the concept goes, delegates simply pick anyone they want to be the Republican nominee.
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It's highly improbable and would likely destroy the GOP by throwing out the results of primaries and caucuses and any real role voters play in picking the nominee. But such a move isn't, strictly speaking, impossible.
At least one Republican Party player, North Dakota's Curly Haugland, is lobbying to do just that: Free the delegates.
"My opinion is, the delegates to the 2016 convention are not bound, no matter what people tell you in the building known as the Republican National Committee," said Haugland, a veteran member of the RNC Rules Committee and member of the panel which will decide in three months how the 2016 convention is run.
Technically, Haugland is correct — there are no rules yet for the national convention, so the delegates are not bound yet. But they are almost certain to be bound at the convention — as promised by Republican leaders for months and months and months.
"Whether it should be done really is a polticial decision," said Jeff Essman, chairman of the Montana Republican Party and a member of the RNC who has been lobbied by Haugland to support the effort.
"An important part of our culture our society is dealing with the public's expectations. It's hard on a culture and a society when those what those expectations are attempted to be radically changed. And I think most practical politicians understand that, I think most practical party members understand that," he said. "That'll serve as a check on any radical change in my opinion."
The fight over delegates has consumed the Republican Party in recent weeks as Trump, the front-runner for the nomination since late summer, faces an uphill climb to clinch the 1,237 bound delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot. Should he fail, there will be a free-for-all to win the nod, and so having the delegates come to Cleveland without having to go through the first ballot motions makes some logical -- but not necessarily practical -- sense.
Based on results from caucuses and primaries, delegates are bound to vote for certain candidates on the first ballot. Depending on state rules, some are free from the second ballot and beyond, and others have to wait longer before becoming unbound. Cruz, in particular, has been working behind the scenes at the district and state level to place delegates loyal to him in delegations, so even if they are "bound" or committed to vote for Trump on the first ballot, they then back the Texas senator thereafter.
That lobbying has Trump accusing the GOP and Cruz of trying to steal the nomination from him, even going as far as to suggest "riots" if he's not the pick after a brokered convention.
Here's how the nuclear option would work. In short: The rules for the GOP convention won't be final until the delegates vote on them at the beginning of proceedings in Cleveland. Which leaves open all sorts of possibilities, including releasing delegates from commitments to Trump, Cruz, Kasich or anyone else. The convention Rules Committee could decide to free all 2,472 delegates to pick whoever they like for president -- nixing months of grueling primaries and caucuses everywhere from Iowa to Alaska.
"Reality is they can change that rules committee before the convention so that literally anybody could be nominated from the floor," said Gary Emineth, a former RNC member and convention rules gadfly. "Now, is it politically wise? Probably not. But it all depends on what those numbers are reached in that delegate count with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz."
Such a move would have to be approved by delegates at the convention, so even if the 112-member Rules Committee decided to go in this direction, there's no guarantee it would be adopted.
Essman, who used to preside over the 50 members of the Montana Senate, joked that the most important rule anywhere is the majority rule.
"In a membership of 50 members you often say the most important rule is 26-24," he said. "The rule of the majority."

Power of the Rules Committee

Talk of freeing the delegates is most likely an academic exercise, but the power of the Rules Committee to determine the nominee is very much real.
The panel will set the rules for debate and votes at the convention, which is why in state convention and caucus battles, the three remaining campaigns have been angling for spots on the committee if not an outright majority of 57 members.
The Trump and Cruz campaigns reached out to Michigan Republican leaders last weekend to let them know precisely who they wanted in Michigan's two rules' seats, for instance.
In Oklahoma, which will make its two selections next month, Republican Chairwoman Pam Pollard said she is recommending that one Trump delegate and one Cruz supporter take the seats. The campaigns forwarded their preferred rules members to her, but she explained they would have to win over the other delegates to get a seat, not just her.
"They have recommended specific people and my response was 'It's your job to get that person elected as a delegate,'" she said.
There's also the potential that neither of the three remaining candidates gains enough power alone to control the rules -- a prospect amplified by Haugland's own success in winning one of North Dakota's two seats on the panel. Haugland is staunchly opposed to supporting any of the three candidates at this point and is lobbying every other delegate to withhold their support until that first nominating vote.

Perception is reality

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The precursor to selecting any nominee not named Trump, Cruz or Kasich is a batch of free delegates who could nominate almost anyone.
Freeing every delegate, like Haugland wants, may be highly improbable. But the prospect of loosening the rules so someone else could be picked seems a very real possibility — two delegates for Marco Rubio won seats on the powerful rules committee, representing Washington, D.C. and could easily join with other rules members that are unaffiliated, or supporting Kasich, to gang up on Trump and Cruz.
Even the prospect of being drafted that way forced House Speaker Paul Ryan to call a last-minute news conference to prove, once and for all, he will not be the nominee this year.
And he picked one very specific audience for his message Tuesday.
"Let me speak directly to the delegates on this: If no candidate has a majority on the first ballot, I believe you should only choose a person who actually participated in the primary," Ryan said. "Count me out."