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A Convention Unlike Any Other: Can the GOP Hold It Together?

7 minute read

Kendal Unruh makes for an unlikely coup plotter. A Colorado schoolteacher and longtime Republican activist, she has been a delegate to the past seven GOP conventions, never once making any trouble from the floor.

But now she is the face of Free the Delegates, the most visible in an alliance of groups mounting a long-shot bid to dump Donald Trump. “I don’t ask for perfection in a candidate, but I certainly want them to be a Republican,” she said of the likely nominee.

Her group, which hoped to force a floor vote to unbind delegates, is just one of several challenges Trump will face when the party meets in Cleveland. Hundreds of delegates remain committed Trump opponents, many of them pledging never to vote for Trump under any circumstances. United in their opposition to Trump but divided over how to replace him, the movement drew few backers among the party insiders who favor stability above all else. Which means no one can safely predict what will unfold along Lake Erie.

Walkouts are planned, and attempts to heckle Trump as he gives his acceptance speech on Thursday night may develop if the anti-Trump forces feel they are being treated unfairly on rules and platform fights. The bargaining will go on after opening gavel. “If they don’t want the embarrassment of a walkout, that’s in the RNC’s hands,” Unruh said. At minimum, she joked, “the Colorado delegation will be reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Wait, Cleveland?

Yes, Cleveland is a Democratic city in a key swing state. But it is also home to Ohio’s largest concentration of Republicans. Which is why the GOP decided to gather there July 18.

[The following text appears within a map. Please see your hard copy or PDF for actual map.]

Designated demonstration areas


Lake Erie









RNC site




Security plans

Party conventions have long held the potential for protest; this is politics, after all. But Trump events have at times had a more violent valence. Now, add high temperatures, protesters of every stripe and hundreds of television crews from all over the world. And then comes the fact that under Ohio’s open-carry law, protesters will be able to carry firearms to the protest zones near the convention hall. Even Dean Rieck, executive director of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said that “may not be wise.”

For now, law-enforcement officials in northern Ohio say they are prepared. “Our expectation is that people are going to come and behave,” said Dan Williams, media-relations director for Cleveland. Dozens of groups, from Food Not Bombs to Bikers for Trump, have applied for public-demonstration permits; the city has set up an emergency-operations center to orchestrate its response. The local police force of about 500 will be backed up by about 2,500 state and federal law-enforcement officers from outside the city. Extra beds in county jails have been secured in case of mass arrests.

Behind the platform, deep divisions


The GOP platform committee rejected a plan to call on states to pass laws similar to North Carolina’s controversial HB 2, which bans transgender bathroom choice. After outreach from top party officials, the proposal was scaled back to a protest of efforts to force schools to allow students to use restrooms in accordance with how they identify.


The 2012 platform called for a global free-trade zone and swift passage of a new Pacific trade deal. In 2016, Trump’s influence was felt the most in this section. “We need better-negotiated trade agreements that put America first,” the document states. But Trump did not get everything he wanted. Delegates removed critical references to NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


For the first time, an openly gay delegate served on the platform committee, but her effort to replace language about traditional marriage with “respect for all families” failed. Instead, the committee added a call for reconsideration of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, or a constitutional amendment to ban those unions.


Delegates upgraded a proposal to erect a “barrier” on the border with a Trumpian demand to build a “wall.” But there was no description of which border or any demand that Mexico pay for it. Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country also went missing, though the document echoes his more recent calls to limit refugees from countries with active Islamic extremist movements.



Number of people expected in Cleveland for the convention, making it Trump’s biggest production yet


Number of balloons that will drop when Trump accepts the nomination


Size, in square feet, of the video screen behind the main stage where Trump will give his speech


Expected number of credentialed members of the media

$130 million

Rough estimate of the total cost of the convention, including $50 million in federal security funds

Delegates focus past Trump on 2020

Cleveland will produce more than just a nominee. It is also host to a hard-to-miss fight over the future of the party: its rules, its values and its next leaders. For many, Trump is just an interlude in the ongoing battle between conservative purists and Establishment moderates. “The Trump era feels to me like punting on third down,” says David Kochel, an Iowa operative and former top aide to Jeb Bush. “We’ll have to wait another election cycle to figure out who’s right.”

Already under way are fights about geography and diversity: Which states and which voters control the primary derby every four years? Delegates brought amendments to the rules committee to tip the balance in 2020, including a proposal to strip Nevada’s fourth-in-the-nation primary slot and to require closed primaries and caucuses after Trump ran the table of contests open to independent voters. And there will be all sorts of meet and greets by likely 2020 candidates like Paul Ryan and Scott Walker.

Such jockeying is the norm for a convention with an incumbent President, but Trump is no incumbent. “It’s unusual to see it start so early,” said former RNC chairman Mike Duncan.

Even the current party boss, Reince Priebus, told TIME he expects the focus to be on 2020. “I’m sure those discussions will keep going,” he said, cautioning that those plotting their future four years out may find it counterproductive.

The other voices by the lake


The House Speaker, who has been cool in his support of Trump, will use his remarks to highlight his “opportunity agenda” for the GOP.


An early Trump supporter who helped the candidate draft his immigration plan, the Alabama Senator likes to say Trump is more than just a campaign: “A movement is afoot that must not fade away.”


A star of the 2012 Republican Convention, the Wisconsin governor is hoping for another hero’s welcome after a disappointing presidential campaign.


The Iowa freshman Senator took her name out of contention to be Trump’s running mate, but the party rising star is looking to boost her clout.


The brain surgeon turned candidate found common cause with Trump after they both misheard their cues to take the debate stage in New Hampshire.


The delegate-count runner-up left the race calling Trump a “serial philanderer” and “pathological liar” who was “utterly amoral.” Will he take the high road now?

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