For three days, the center of the Republican political universe will be in Hollywood, Florida, where the national GOP began a three-day meeting Wednesday ahead of July’s presidential nominating convention.
To voters, it might have looked like the campaign was elsewhere. Donald Trump held a big rally in Indiana, celebrating his rout in Tuesday’s New York primary. Ted Cruz took a sweet trip to a chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
But the behind-the-scenes action took place inside Hollywood’s beachside Diplomat Resort & Spa, where longtime activists who form the Republican National Committee kicked off their spring meeting.
Usually, the meeting attracts the attention only of political junkies interested in the inner workings of the party. But this is no usual year.
And so the RNC gathering drew not only party stalwarts but also two presidential candidates — John Kasich and Cruz, who flew down from Pennsylvania — and Trump’s campaign brass. Cruz and Kasich met privately with party members Wednesday afternoon; Trump’s team, including former opponent Ben Carson, is scheduled to sit down with members Thursday.
Though Trump further cemented his front-runner status with Tuesday’s New York win, the celebrity businessman has yet to amass a majority of convention delegates to seal the nomination. Cruz and Kasich each tried to make the case that they’d be a better choice.
Cruz argued Wednesday that he’d be a better top-of-the-ticket candidate for other Republicans running in November. The Texas senator touted endorsements from five former rivals: Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina.
“That’s a tremendous, widely diverse coalition, geographically and ideologically, across the party,” Cruz told reporters. “Republicans, we want to win. If Donald Trump is the nominee, Hillary Clinton wins — and she wins by double digits.”
Kasich told reporters he’s seen 15 national polls showing him defeating Clinton in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up.
“We have been able to put a message — for those who have heard it — that we can attract the blue-collar voters that I grew up with,” he said.
If Donald Trump is the nominee, Hillary Clinton wins — and she wins by double digits.
Republicans appeared to be in wait-and-see mode.
Typically during a spring meeting, the RNC would suggest tweaks to guidelines that govern the quadrennial conventions. Those recommendations would then go to a committee that, a week before the convention, settles on the final rules.
The GOP is under so much scrutiny this year, however, that it’s not expected to draft any suggestions when a rules committee meets Thursday. Chairman Reince Priebus has said he doesn’t want any changes.
Florida committeeman Peter Feaman, who sits on the RNC’s permanent rules committee, agreed. (The convention rules committee is separate.)
“I actually want the perception to be that the Republican National Committee is the umpire in this process, and not the outcome-driver,” said Feaman, who is from Palm Beach County and has remained neutral in the race. “We’re not here to manipulate who the winner is. We’re here to call balls and strikes, to make sure that the process is fair, open and transparent.”
That scrutiny stems from Trump, who has called the GOP nomination “rigged” by elites who don’t want him in power — and who, in some cases, openly argue for a nominee who has won fewer popular votes and fewer delegates. Trump’s critics counter this is how presidential nominees have always been chosen, and it’s up to candidates to familiarize themselves with the rules from the start.
One of Trump’s former rivals, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, told local radio station WIOD-AM (610) on Wednesday that, as private organizations, political parties could even choose to pick a nominee from “a bunch of names in a hat.”
“This is the way the system has been for a long time in both parties,” he said, noting that he wasn’t advocating for a hat-picking situation. “There’s basically no invalid way of choosing your nominee.”
This is the way the system has been for a long time in both parties.
With little rules action expected, the men and women in trim blazers and demure sundresses that milled about the Diplomat on Wednesday appeared to be getting more business done in private meetings and hallway tête-à-têtes than in formal sessions. How might the tumultuous 2016 race end, they asked each other, and what could a contested convention look like?
Curly Haugland, an RNC member from North Dakota, said the prospect of a contested convention has given the party independence from candidates who at this stage in the campaign would usually be calling the shots on what they’d want to see in July.
“It strengthens the party’s position,” he said. “We don’t let the candidates tell us what to do — that’s like the monkeys running the zoo.”
For local politicos, the GOP meeting was a curious sight, given that the Diplomat — the area’s largest unionized hotel — usually hosts large gatherings of Florida Democrats, not Republicans. The RNC’s Wednesday evening plans featured an Intracoastal cruise aboard the Grand Floridian Yacht, with a dinner buffet and “live music and cigars.”
Gov. Rick Scott will speak at Thursday’s luncheon.