CLEVELAND — The fissures that divided the Republican Party throughout the primary season bubbled up in unexpected floor drama Monday afternoon.
But within hours, the dissension had been silenced, and the party was left where it began this convention — with Donald Trump as its presumptive nominee and its dissenters looking ahead to how they might do things differently in four years.
Monday’s drama was the last stand of anti-Trump delegates, who, through splintered efforts this summer, had been searching for a way to deny Trump the nomination. But without so much as an alternative candidate, none of their efforts in the lead-up to the convention were expected to prevail.
That didn’t stop them from a last-minute attempt.
“It’s very hard to force unity,” Saul Anuzis, a Ted Cruz delegate from Michigan, said as the chaos was breaking out on the floor.
Many of those Republicans who worked against Trump are now asking themselves what’s next, and whether they should focus their energy on something other than the presidential race in 2016.
Not Ready To Back Trump
Hours before the floor chaos, the New Hampshire delegation gathered for a buffet breakfast 15 miles to the west of Cleveland.
Underneath “Make America Safe Again” signs — the theme of the first day of the convention — affixed to the wood paneling of this darkened Italian grill, delegates said they were optimistic Trump could carry their state, as well as other blue states Trump’s campaign has said it will put in play.
Trump carried New Hampshire overwhelmingly in January, but after hosting the state’s first in the nation primary, Granite State Republicans are still divided.
“A good 85 percent of them will get behind him,” said former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who ran for Senate in the Granite State and told the delegation that he has no plans of leaving.
New Hampshire state Rep. Bill O’Brien, a Cruz delegate, said he’ll back Trump over Hillary in November. But as of Monday, he wasn’t ready.
“I just can’t do the last step, which says, ‘And Donald Trump is the solution.’ He’s not the solution,” O’Brien said.
But ahead of floor proceedings, he’d had heard nothing from the Cruz campaign about trying to stop Trump and was instead more interested in efforts to reform the party structure advanced by the likes of former Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, now president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Reforming the Rules
Cuccinelli was one of the most vocal advocates of a roll call vote on the floor.
Delegates from at least nine states submitted signatures calling for a roll call vote on the rules package drafted by the convention’s rules committee last week.
But sensing a potential threat before the official convention programming began, Trump’s campaign and RNC staffers worked the floor to push delegates to withdraw from the petition.
In the end, the RNC only counted six states whose delegates wanted a roll call vote — just below the threshold of the seven needed to force a vote. The presiding officer, Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, declared that the “ayes” had won two voice votes, and the rules had been adopted. There was no roll call vote.
The strongest of the anti-Trump voices — those in the “never Trump” camp — had been pushing for a rules change that would allow delegates to be unbound from the likely nominee, even if their state had voted for him. In other words, they’d be allowed to vote their conscience.
“The convention exists for a reason, and to ignore the will of the delegates in order to preserve a false sense of support for Donald Trump will do even more harm to the party and this week’s proceedings,” said “Never Trump” senior adviser Rory Cooper in a statement.
Cuccinelli said his interest wasn’t in stopping Trump, but instead in pushing the RNC to be more receptive to grassroots demands. “We don’t support unbinding,” he said. “This was about grassroots rules and making this a bottom-up party,” Cuccinelli said.
He shook his state’s placard and shouted “shame” at the stage when his delegation wasn’t recognized. At one point he picked up his plastic bag, which was transparent for security reasons, and threatened to leave.
His supporters stopped him. “We need you to stay. We’re not done, Ken,” one woman said.
But after two failed voice votes, they were done.
“It’s disappointing,” Cuccinelli said. “There’s nowhere to appeal.”
Plenty of Republicans upset with Trump and the RNC have resigned to shifting their focus to reforming the party, like Cuccinelli, or winning congressional races, holding the Senate, and even laying the groundwork for another presidential primary in 2020 or 2024.
Republicans who still loathe Trump would have found a flicker of hope if they had attended the Ohio delegation’s breakfast, where a first-term senator momentarily offered a glimpse of who might become the party’s next presidential nominee.
It was hard to miss the significance of Tom Cotton’s appearance before the Midwest audience — a conservative from Arkansas beloved by many of the GOP’s traditional constituencies. Even his introduction hinted at future possibilities.
“I’m happy to introduce a friend of mine who I believe is the future of the Republican Party, but more importantly, the future of the country,” said Josh Mandel, Ohio’s state treasurer.
For the “never Trump” movement, speculating about someone like Cotton is about as good as it gets now, after the business mogul finally, officially becomes the party’s presidential nominee.
The skepticism of Trump inside the Ohio delegation was evident during the breakfast, where his name was rarely, if ever, invoked by the handful of speakers who spoke inside the crammed hotel banquet room. The Buckeye State backed its governor, John Kasich, during the primary, and Kasich has conspicuously withheld his support from Trump even after the New Yorker became the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
The feud between the two camps flared again Monday, when Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort said the governor is “embarrassing his state.” The criticism prompted a swift and sharp rebuke from the Ohio GOP chairman.
“The people in that room are John Kasich delegates,” said Jon Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state. “The people in that room are people that worked hard for John Kasich to be the nominee and voted for him and cared about him so they’re going to have a bias toward John Kasich and maybe not an affinity for Donald Trump.”
The danger for Trump and the GOP is that so many disaffected Republicans don’t vote for Trump that they hand the election to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Not every conservative, however, thinks it will come to that.
“I think the prevailing mood this year is that Hillary has to be stopped or you’re not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” said Brent Bozell, a conservative leader and vocal critic of Trump’s in the past. “Every four years we say it’s the most important year ever. But this year there is a seriousness and purpose in that statement. I don’t know that a lot of conservatives are looking beyond 2016.”