Conservatives plot to hold the line on social issues at convention

Story highlights

  • Conservative Republicans are looking to control the Republican platform in order to prevent changes to language on social issues
  • They are especially concerned about provisions on abortion and LGBT policies

Washington (CNN)Faced with an independent-minded nominee, a changing electorate and a well-funded effort to moderate some of the GOP's positions, conservative Republicans are maneuvering to defend the line on social issues at the last place they can: the convention.

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Efforts are already underway to gain power on the Platform and Rules committees at the once-every-four-years gathering.
    A group of long-time Republican National Committee members are launching an effort to influence the platform that comes out of the convention by getting delegates on the committee and lobbying it. They say they're responding to an effort by a different group that is pushing the GOP to embrace more LGBT-friendly policies. The effort is an offshoot of an existing group that fights for a conservative agenda within the party, spearheaded by RNC veterans Jim Bopp Jr., Bruce Ash and Solomon Yue.
    And the remaining vestiges of the campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is urging supporters to stay engaged in the delegate process and seek out spots on the influential committees. The campaign held a conference call with loyalists last week to convey the message and rally the troops, featuring Cruz and the campaign's delegate director, Ken Cuccinelli.
    Of concern for both efforts is language that could be added to the platform or watered down in the existing party roadmap on abortion, transgender rights and same-sex marriage. Conservatives in the party are looking to protect hard-line language in the platform and add clarity on so-called bathroom bills, banning transgender individuals from using a public facility that does not correspond to the gender on their birth certificate.
    Donald Trump himself has also made statements indicating flexibility with the party's positions. Trump said in an NBC interview last month that he would change the platform on abortion to allow for three exceptions, rape, incest and life of the mother. And on transgender bills, Trump on Friday declined several opportunities to go after the Obama administration for issuing guidance to protect transgender students.
    "I would leave that issue to the states," Trump told NBC's "Today." "You're talking about one tiny, tiny group of population. Everybody has to be protected but that's an issue that should be left up to the states."
    "Everybody has to be protected, even if it's one person," he reiterated on "Fox and Friends" that morning. And Trump said last month that people should use "whatever bathroom they feel is appropriate."
    The convention also convenes with an electorate increasingly comfortable with gay marriage, and after two Supreme Court rulings that have made same-sex marriage the law of the land nationwide. And the Trump campaign has brought in scores of new delegates to the RNC, attracted to his nontraditional approach to a host of issues including free trade, minimum wage and foreign policy.
    A fight over the party platform and rules at the convention is nothing new. But this year it comes under a host of new factors.
    For one, the real possibility of a contested convention had energized delegates on all sides of the debate, with investments made early in developing structures to influence the RNC. Now in the hangover of that fight, factions are looking to find other ways to use the influence they built.
    The effort from Bopp, Ash and Yue point their concern at the American Unity Fund's Platform Reform project, an advocacy group backed by billionaire Paul Singer that works to make the GOP more LGBT-friendly. The platform project is wholly focused on removing anti-LGBT language from the platform and replacing it with more inclusive wording.
    American Unity Fund senior adviser Tyler Deaton pushed back against allegations that his group is looking to do anything more than make the GOP more inclusive to LGBT Americans, and he did say he expects progress to be made at this year's convention.
    "I don't believe this is the year we fix everything or clean up everything, but this should be a year we take a step in the right direction," Deaton said in an interview.
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    He said Trump deserves "credit" for his position on transgender individuals, and believed Trump supporters would be receptive to the group's message.
    "The new people, I think, is great news, because the people who are coming in, they're not coming into the Republican Party, they're not supporting Donald Trump because they don't like LGBT people, that's the farthest thing from their minds," Deaton said. "I think when a lot of these people read the platform for the first time and they see some of this mean-spirited language they're going to be shocked."
    Trump's actual interest level in changing the platform is still a mystery to the conservative groups.
    "Truthfully I don't know what Trump might want to do to change the platform," said Iowa Rep. Steve King, a supporter of Cruz's campaign. "I just say that we want to have conservative delegates at the convention that will defend our values. I don't think he's going to go after the pro-life plank; that would be a great big fight if that happened. The marriage plank? Probably not. You know, who knows whether there's going to be a bathroom plank in there or not."
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    And Bopp, Ash and Yue all said their work has nothing to do with Trump. In fact, they said, reconciling candidates' positions with the platform is a process that has repeated itself every year they've been a part of the convention. Bopp said the platform committee could even be the place that the elusive "party unity" discussed by the GOP could cement.
    "We've never had a prospective nominee who all of his views correspond identically with our previous platform. It's never been the case ... we had to reconcile that while at the same time making sure our platform reflected the conservative views of the party," Bopp said, pointing to Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008, for example.
    "The nominee is entitled to a platform that he can run on, but it should also be a platform that reflects the views of the party, and I think that kind of reconciliation can be very helpful in bringing people together," he said.
    But party insiders also expect any fight to be a sideshow to the main event at the convention. Even with Trump's sometimes contradictory positions, he's signaled he won't fight the party on its core principles.
    "I think if the Trump campaign is smart, they'll just pretty much ignore it, talk about what's in their interest and let this go away as quietly as they can and let the base have a victory," said RNC Committeeman Henry Barbour, a veteran of convention and party committees.
    "I think the platform committee sends a message to the grassroots: These are the things we care about ... and I think it's really important for the activists who work for the party. For the general electorate, it doesn't mean a whole lot."