NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Michael Najvar is part of the Republican Party’s electoral bedrock: The 67-year-old Texan says he has voted for every GOP presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan. But that’s a streak that might end this fall, the Donald Trump supporter says, if rival campaigns and party bosses use a contested convention to block the New York billionaire from the presidential nomination.
“If they used a brokered convention, they’d destroy the GOP,” says Navjar, who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday wearing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” red hat.
Asked directly if he’d support the eventual GOP presidential nominee, the longtime Republican demurred. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’d have to cross that bridge when I came to it.”
As the GOP presidential primary season nears its halfway point, Trump’s Republican opponents increasingly say the only way to stop him from capturing the nomination — and, in their eyes, dooming the party to civil war and an electoral wipe out — is at a contested convention. But voters like Najvar are a potent reminder that even if anti-Trump forces win in Cleveland, they could lose the larger war this fall.
Block Trump from the nomination at the convention, and the former reality TV star’s supporters might feel so cheated that they refuse to vote for the Republican nominee in the general election. In a close race, even a small number defections could prove fatal.
“There’s no question that Donald Trump inside the party ought to worry the party,” said Colin Hanna, president of the conservative activist group Let Freedom Ring. “And Donald Trump outside the party ought to worry the party.”
Talk of a contested convention will only increase this week, especially after Saturday’s primary and caucus results. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s unexpectedly strong victories in Maine and Kansas give some Republicans fresh hope that Trump will fail to win the 1,237 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination, cracking open the door for a rival – whether it’s Cruz or someone else – to win a convention floor fight.
It was already a subject of much discussion at CPAC, where everyone from rank-and-file activists to presidential candidates were discussing it. On Friday, in an interview on the event’s main stage, Fox News TV show host Sean Hannity asked Ohio Gov. John Kasich if he thought the GOP was headed toward a contested convention.
“I think nobody goes to convention with enough delegates,” Kasich responded, suggesting that he himself will remain a candidate until then as long as he wins his home state of Ohio next week.
The effect bitter primaries can have on the eventual nominee’s general election prospects is often overstated: Barack Obama in 2008, for instance, didn’t suffer running against John McCain much after his protracted fight with Hillary Clinton. But neither political party has had a convention fight since the GOP in 1976, and after every primary, the loser pivoted to offer his or her full-throated support of their former intra-party rival.
But a defeated Trump isn’t guaranteed to endorse. Worse for Republicans, he could actively encourage his supporters to stay home instead of vote on Election Day. Supporters like Najvar suggest he could even form his own third party.
“A lot will depend on Donald Trump,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist who sits on the board of the American Conservative Union. “And predicting what he will do is not an exact science.”
Even former presidential contender and noted Trump critic Sen. Lindsey Graham has said that taking the nomination away from Trump should he win 1,237 delegates would be inappropriate. The more likely scenario to give Republican opposed to Trump an opening is he falls short of that threshold, but still holds a plurality of overall delegates.
At that point, how many delegates Trump is short could matter a lot for the argument ahead, say GOP strategists. The larger the margin, the weaker his argument that he was cheated out of the nomination.
“If Trump is within 50 votes of the nomination and he’s denied from the nomination, that’s a different thing than if he’s not very close,” said Gerow. “That’s not to say he won’t say it, but it takes away his argument.”
Not all Republicans are convinced that Trump’s supporters will stay home if he isn’t the nominee. Hillary Clinton, they point out, is a powerful motivator to rejoin the GOP, and Republicans will have months before Election Day to curry their favor.
“Who feels disenfranchised in July, and who feels that way in November?” asked Hanna.
And there’s still hope, especially after Saturday’s results, that Trump’s GOP foes can catch him the old-fashioned way.
“Cruz is less than a 100 delegates away,” said Rick Tyler, his former campaign spokesman who attended CPAC. “That’s less than two states.”