If there was ever a year to be a Republican National Convention delegate, Denver Republican Jerry Wheeler thinks this is it.
“You want to go to a brokered one,” said Wheeler after the Denver County Assembly last weekend. “One where your vote can really impact it, rather than going to a convention already being decided and you're just there for show.”
Wheeler’s still deciding whether he wants to throw his name into the ring to represent Colorado at the national convention, but he’s interested enough that he took the key step to ask people at his county gathering to send him on to the Congressional District Assembly or the State Convention next month. Those gatherings are where RNC delegates are actually elected from a wider pool of party faithful.
In the past, Wheeler says, delegates mostly ran on their reputation or general political views. This year, the people he talked with didn't seem to care so much about that.
“The biggest question was: whom you supported for president,” Wheeler said. “And kind of the more pronounced question was, ‘are you anti-Trump?’”
That's the $10,000 question. Will Colorado's Republican delegates help push businessman Donald Trump over the threshold, or will they throw in with the Stop-Trump side? Colorado doesn’t have a large delegation compared to a lot of other states. But with Trump working to lock up the nomination outright and his opponents hoping to maneuver to a brokered convention, every delegate counts right now.
So far about 500 people have applied to run for the delegation's 34 open slots. Sixty-two percent of them say they want to go unbound to any candidate. Twenty-one percent support Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Thirteen percent back Trump. Only a handful say they’d vote for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Sending an uncommitted delegation could make Colorado a king-maker at a close convention.
“This election cycle really does argue in favor of an unpledged delegate,” said former state party chair Ryan Call, who's running as an unpledged delegate himself. “An unpledged delegate is kind of an open question and it may really lead to more likelihood of a contested convention.”
But state Republican Party chair Steve House believes even unbound RNC candidates will likely have to give some sense of how they'd vote.
“Everybody's talking about the presidency; everybody's talking about who the delegates should be. I just think that there's going to be a lot of people that are going to require that they know who you're supporting if you're going to run for national delegate,” said House.
Elections Within Elections
Colorado's Republican delegate selection process involves a series of smaller and smaller elections, like a set of Russian nesting dolls.
It starts with precinct caucuses, where party members chose representatives to go to the county assemblies. From the county gatherings a smaller pool of people proceed to the state and congressional district assemblies (in larger counties many of these delegates are actually picked at the precinct stage).
Each congressional district elects three RNC delegates. State convention-goers elect another 13 at-large delegates. The final three slots in the delegation go to the state party chair and Colorado’s national committeeman and committeewoman, positions people run for within the party.
With only about 4,000 party members directly voting on most of the delegates, campaigns can afford to lobby each and every one of them. And that effort has already started.
“I get all the calls, all the emails. It's unbelievable. I get four or five a day,” said DJ Lampson, who’s been active in the Jefferson County Republican Party for years.
Lampson will attend next month's state assembly and says he won't vote for delegates just based on which candidate they support. With the national Republican Party on the brink of civil war, Lampson wants Colorado's delegation to commit to supporting the eventual nominee.
“We want to win. That's the whole attitude I'm looking for,” said Lampson. “So, to get unified: that's the key.”
A Dropped Straw Poll Empowers Delegates
In most states, delegates are obliged to represent the results of a primary or straw poll when they go to the national convention. But in Colorado, the party dropped its preference poll this year. So there's no broader measure of voter opinion for delegates to represent. At the Jefferson County Assembly, it wasn’t hard to find people frustrated with that decision.
Trump supporter Tony Polizzi of Arvada believes the party dropped its straw poll to give the establishment a stronger hand in allocating the delegates, an allocation he assumed would not favor his candidate. So Polizzi is taking matters into his own hands.
“I'm trying to find out who those delegates are so I could talk to them to find out whether they're going to represent me properly or not,” said Polizzi shortly before the assembly began.
The Colorado GOP says giving up the straw poll had nothing to do with favoring one candidate over another. Experienced party members say it's likely Colorado will end up sending a mix of delegates to the RNC in July: unbound ones along with Cruz and Trump supporters.
Still, Trump supporters may have good reason to be concerned: Electing RNC delegates depends on getting enough of your supporters to the state and congressional conventions to vote for them -- and that takes significant planning.
“The Cruz campaign did its due diligence all this past year. It organized, and probably continues to organize to ensure that they’ve got as many delegates as they can heading into the convention,” said University of Georgia political science professor Josh Putnam, who studies the presidential nominating process (read his analysis of Colorado's Republican nominating process here). “The Trump campaign I think is playing catch-up. They’re organizing right now, rather than having organized in 2015.”
GOP chair Steve House has one big message for the people who will pick the delegates -- Colorado's party will support whoever wins the nomination.
“We get applause for that everywhere we go right now,” said House, “because I think everybody realizes the choice is support who the nominee is, or deal with Hillary Clinton probably, or Bernie Sanders and moving toward a socialist environment. And nobody in these rooms wants to be that.”
House is currently focused on wrapping up the delegate selection process. But once it's over, Colorado's Republican chairman has a new goal: to help the state switch to a presidential primary.
A bill to do that failed in the state legislature last year due to grassroots opposition and its multi-million dollar price tag. But with so much attention focused on the complex caucus process this year, there's talk state lawmakers may revisit the idea soon.