Washington – As Republicans gather in Cleveland this summer to select their presidential candidate, three delegates from Connecticut would be among those could wield enormous power if there is a nomination fight.
One is J. R. Romano, the head of the Connecticut Republican Party, who is one of 19 members of the Republican National Committee’s rules panel.
Two others, a man and woman, will be chosen to represent the state on the Republican National Convention’s 112-member rules committee. Their identities won’t be known until they are selected at the May 9 Connecticut Republican Convention.
Romano would make his mark before the convention, when the RNC meets to determine the rules for the convention. Romano and others on his panel could suggest changes to convention rules that could strongly influence the nominating process.
But it will be the 112 members of the convention’s rules committee that would vote on those guidelines and send their plan to the convention floor for approval or rejection.
“We can adopt guidelines, but the rules committee can change them,” Romano said.
Much could hinge on those rules this year.
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at California’s Claremont McKenna College, said there’s a good chance none of the GOP presidential candidates, including frontrunner Donald Trump, will come into the convention with the 1,237 delegates needed to snare the nomination.
“It is possible, but difficult (for Trump,” Pitney said. “He has to do better in the next few weeks than he’s done in the past. There could be real doubt, and that hasn’t happened in about 40 years.”
The last time there was a truly brokered convention was in 1976, when Gerald Ford was slightly ahead of Ronald Reagan in the delegate count but neither had reached that year’s magic number.
The lack of a clear nominee would break the convention wide open—and give the rules committee members enormous clout.
“[Convention rules] are not carved in stone; they can be changed convention to convention,”’ said University of Connecticut political science professor Ron Schurin.
For example, rules committee members could undo policies requiring most of the 2,472 convention delegates to abide by the will of primary voters, freeing the delegates to vote according to personal preference. They could seek changes to other rules too that could work for or against a certain candidate.
Romano, who has decided not to back any candidate until the state picks a winner at its April 26 primary, said talk of a rules fight and a brokered convention is premature.
“A lot of this is being driven by the 24-hour news cycle and people trying to get their 15 minutes of fame,” he said.
Political analysts and a few fellow members of the RNC have said recently that it would be legitimate to pick a candidate other than the front-runner at a contested convention if no candidate has a delegate majority.
Pitney said the anti-Trump movement among Republicans who view Trump as “utterly unfit to be president” are pressing for a brokered convention. “There are a lot of Republicans who are dead set against Trump being the nominee,” Pitney said.
The business of naming delegates has been largely ceremonial since Reagan challenged Ford. But not this time. This time the loyalties of those sent to the GOP convention will be very important, so the campaigns will be more judicious than usual in choosing those delegates.
In 1976, Reagan sought a rules change that would have forced Ford to announce his choice for vice president, hoping it would anger some of the delegates both candidates were wooing. Convention delegates rejected that idea, helping Ford win the nomination.
In 2012, Mitt Romney backers won a rules change that required a candidate to win at least eight states – instead of five – to capture the nomination, a move intended to thwart Ron Paul.
Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson was on the rules committee in that convention.
“I didn’t know going in that it was going to be as controversial as it was,” Stevenson said.
A Romney supporter, Stevenson backed changing the rule “to bring the party together.” But as a first-time participant in a national party convention, she said she “wasn’t a party to some of the back-door negotiations.”
The campaign of Ohio Gov. Kasich is now seeking to roll back the number of states a candidate must win to be in the running. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, another GOP candidate for the White House, is also considering some rule changes.
But none of the presidential campaigns have anyone to lobby, yet. The members of the rules committee won’t be decided until after all 50 states have had their primaries.
The state’s delegates to the Republican National Convention will be chosen according to the results in Connecticut’s presidential primary. The campaigns of candidates who win each of the five congressional districts in the state will be able to enlist delegates from that district.
The overall state winner will get to appoint the five at-large delegates and command the loyalty of the state’s GOP superdelegates, Romano and National Committeeman John Frey, a state representative, and National Committeewoman Patricia Longo.
Two of Connecticut’s 28 delegates will be selected to sit on the rules committee.
Romano said he could suggest some candidates best suited to the panel, but they would have to be approved by a majority of the other delegates.
Connecticut delegates are bound to support the candidate they are pledged to in the first round of votes at the convention. Some states require delegates to remain loyal until after the third ballot.
The biggest fight at the convention may be about freeing those delegates.
Pitney said even delegates who are pledged to one candidate may choose to vote against that candidate’s interests when it comes to the rules that govern the convention.
“A number of delegates may be bound to vote for a certain candidate, but they are not bound to vote for that candidate’s position on a rule change,” he said. “Say I am a delegate who is bound to Trump, at least on the first ballot. I would not be bound to vote for Trump’s position on a procedural issue.”
To Stevenson, who hopes to be a GOP delegate this year, the convention in Cleveland “could be very, very interesting.”