“They’d better not!”
“We’re going to have to do something.”
Those were the responses of two, GOP Congressmen who asked that they not be identified when asked whether the Republican party would engineer a brokered convention this summer to settle on a presidential nominee.
Of course, nothing stokes the imaginations of political journalists more than the possibility of a brokered convention. And there’s nothing that scares the dickens out of lawmakers more than a brokered convention unfolding just two months before the November ballot.
For scribes, a brokered convention offers conflict, tension and drama – the quintessential ingredients for weaving a political narrative.
For lawmakers, a brokered convention offers conflict, tension and drama – the quintessential ingredients for political disaster.
While this volatility holds potential peril for all Republicans, it’s particularly vexing for House GOPers. House members are often the best barometer against which to gauge the state of the American electorate since they have to run every two years. Therefore, it’s House Republicans who could have the most to lose if a brokered Republican convention unfolds in Florida this September.
The conversations in Republican circles go like this: Mitt Romney is hardly igniting the field. Rick Santorum is too conservative. Newt Gingrich is too toxic. And Ron Paul is unelectable. Thus, the GOP is in for a protracted nominating and potentially damaging nominating process with the Republican faithful unable to settle on a single candidate. This disenchantment with the field means influential party elders and activists alike are searching for a man – or a woman – on a white horse to ride in at the last moment to salvage the day.
Of course, it doesn’t help when elite Republican figures decided to take a pass on the presidential sweepstakes. That’s why there’s murmuring about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).
It is a long way from the convention. But these calls aren’t just coming from disaffected precinct captains and local attorneys who moonlight as county Republican chairmen. Some of this talk is emanating from those at the top who sources indicate have mulled potential scenarios and what behind-the-scenes engineering would be necessary to settle this in late August.
One of the problems is that state parties have different rules about how they allocate delegates. The rules vary as to how strictly delegates are tied to candidates and whether they can support who they want at the convention. Thus, if someone jumps into the race late or a delegate’s support for a candidate is squishy, who knows what could happen in Tampa.
That could trigger either a contested or a brokered convention. A contested convention is where there’s a frontrunner who hasn’t locked up the nomination through the primary process. The battle then moves to the convention where uncommitted delegates could help choose the standard-bearer. A brokered convention is where multiple candidates remain in the running and it’s up to party leaders to sort this out.
Certainly the party would turn to its top officials to referee this. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could play central roles if such a scenario comes to pass. That’s to say nothing of the involvement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Prior to the 2008 Republican convention, Boehner tapped McCarthy (who wasn’t in leadership at the time) to help lead the platform committee. That panel established the precise language the party would use to describe its policy positions on a litany of issues.
The GOP leadership crowd thinks it’s had a tough time running a fractious House of Representatives over the past 14 months? Try managing a brokered or contested convention. It used to be said that political decisions of this sort were always made in “the smoke-filled room.” That chestnut of wisdom could come to pass again based on the political state of play and Boehner’s smoking habits.
But given the influence of the tea party and the emergence of House Republicans in the 2010 election cycle, the party might also have to turn to rank-and-file lawmakers to settle the outcome.
Certainly Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) could be tasked with a role. After all, Rubio’s home state hosts the convention and he’s an icon of the tea party movement. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) might have the same cache. Then there are possible powerbrokers in the House. The GOP could turn to freshman Rep. Allen West (R-FL) for some of the same reasons they go to Rubio. There’s also freshman Rep. Tom Scott (R-SC). Always mindful of diversity, party leaders will embrace the fact that both West and Scott are African Americans.
Paul Ryan could be asked to play a role (if the GOP doesn’t want him to play the role of potential nominee). And they will want prominent Republican female women to have a say in this, too. Expect Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to emerge in the horse-trading of a brokered convention.
There would also have to be a political calculus as to how the end-result (and thus, the nominee) of a brokered or contested convention effects GOP House and Senate candidates. The party would almost have to involve Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). Sessions and Cornyn run the national organizations devoted to electing Republicans to the House and Senate respectively.
After all, party disunity could have the most dramatic impact on lawmakers running this fall. A fractured GOP makes it easier for Democrats to campaign. Republicans have structured much of their campaign strategy this year around President Obama. They’ve hit him hard on the stimulus plan, the state of the economy, health care reform and the overall growth of government. A lack of clarity on the Republican side makes it hard for GOP candidates down the ballot to articulate those claims – and then translate that into votes. One of the Republicans’ primary messages is that they want to elect a GOP House, Senate and president to “undo” all of the legislative and administrative ills executed by Mr. Obama. That case is hard to make if there are fissures in the party over who they should nominate. That’s to say nothing of a diminished GOP turnout if Republicans have an unenthused base. Those factors could spell bad news for House and Senate candidates on the GOP side of the aisle.
And then there are the also-rans of the 2012 field and what influence they could have at a brokered convention.
While her presidential bid fizzled out after the Iowa Caucuses, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) still holds sway in certain GOP quarters. The presidential campaign of Rep. Thad McCotter (R-MI) never fully blossomed. But McCotter is already infusing himself into the brokered convention debate. Not as a possible powerbroker. But McCotter doesn’t want the GOP to go anywhere near what he calls an “orchestrated convention.”
In an essay published on BigGovernment.com, McCotter writes that he would “abjectly reject such despicable machinations” to choose a nominee via a brokered convention.
McCotter argues that any effort to handpick a candidate would “betray the courage of the our current contenders” and then “reward an individual who lacked such courage” to actually run. McCotter asserts that such a maneuver would “belie our Republican party’s claim to trust the judgment of the sovereign American people” and “dispirit and divide our party at the very time it must unite to defeat President Obama.”
McCotter says choosing a nominee at the convention would show scorn for Republican primary voters and foster distrust among voters in the general election.
“Our GOP nominee must be Mitt, Rick, Newt or Ron,” McCotter writes.
Brokered or contested conventions are the most rare of species in the American political jungle. They exist. But like the okapi in the wild, they are hard to trace, even harder to document and becoming extinct. In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale was the last candidate to head into a convention without first locking up all the delegates. In 1976, Republicans had to settle some ballots between President Ford and Ronald Reagan before formally tapping Ford. The last true brokered conventions came in 1952 for the Democrats and 1948 for the Republicans.
So in February, we are a long way from a brokered or contested convention coming to pass. But party elders are protectively bracing for one. And the conversations are already underway for what a brokered or contested convention might mean for GOP House and Senate candidates on the ballot this fall.