The Magazine

Why Not an Open Convention?

A modest proposal.

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By HUGH HEWITT
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When the Republican National Committee adopted a new primary calendar in January, few people fully thought through the impact. Successfully and necessarily fighting the last war, Chairman Reince Priebus led the RNC to adopt reforms to end the mindless chewing-up of would-be nominees by more than a score of cable-ratings-driven debates as well as to put the brakes on the scramble by states to schedule their primaries and caucuses ever earlier.

Hugh Hewitt

When the dust settled at the RNC, a new regime was in place, backed by tough sanctions on rogue states that break the embargo on pre-March 1, 2016, primary contests, a promise of a sane debate schedule, and a late June or early July convention. The early leader for this gathering is Las Vegas, but the sheer folly of that messaging is dawning on party elders, and Cleveland, with its restored downtown and new convention center, looks better and better, especially given Ohio’s critical role in the Electoral College map.

Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada are permitted by the new rules to hold their nominating contests in February 2016, and will almost certainly do so. All other states must wait until March 1 under pain of significant delegate penalties, and any state that picks a date from Tuesday March 1 until Monday March 14 must allocate its delegates proportionately. “Winner-take-all” contests can begin March 15.

States interested in influencing the election, or in grabbing the biggest slice of the billion-dollar campaign expenditures pie, thus will pick either March 1 or March 15 for their contests. March 15 looms large in many hypothetical primary schedules. Indeed, the two or three weeks leading up to March 15 are going to see a flood of money wash ashore in the states smart enough to get their legislatures moving towards relevance now.

Which brings us to the unlikely duo of Texas senator Ted Cruz and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

The former hasn’t said he is running but almost certainly is. The latter has very specifically said, “No, no, no, no, no,” and those closest to him believe that is a real “No!” The Romney reboot naysayers applaud the 2012 nominee’s reticence, and practically shout, “Romney’s done, run into the ground, finished as a force in the party.” And they are right if they mean Romney has no practical chance to be the nominee if he isn’t running.

But they are very wrong if they mean Romney has no ability to make the political weather, and having run twice and lost both times doesn’t change that. The reality is that the new GOP map and likely primary calendar greatly favors Cruz, whom the establishment greatly, indeed irrationally fears, as Iowa and South Carolina will be on fire for the firebrand with the extraordinary rhetorical and debating skills. New Hampshire was going to be Chris Christie country, but may end up being a 10-way carve-up train wreck of a primary. The new Granite State poll released April 18 puts Senator Rand Paul atop a field of 13, with an underwhelming 15 percent of the vote, “favorite daughter” Senator Kelly Ayotte tied for second place with Paul Ryan, and Christie a point behind them.

A badly split New Hampshire result would leave Cruz marching through South Carolina with Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio hoping to stop him there and in Rubio’s long-ago home state of Nevada. But right now it looks like all the momentum will belong to the Texan as the big two March dates loom. The media love a political blitzkrieg, and Cruz would be rolling with Iowa and South Carolina on his board.

Unless, that is, something old becomes something new, something that Governor Romney could champion and for which there might be many takers: an open convention, one where the outcome was not preordained by the delegate contests leading up to it.

Romney could begin the movement to an open convention with a declaration of support for the concept and a statement of his intent to run in the primary contests in his own “favorite son” states and a handful of others without obvious GOP national figures (like Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) and only in these favorite son and “empty” states. Romney’s reason to make this limited “run” would be to help his party by sponsoring the idea of a genuinely “open convention,” which would in turn juice the interest level in the GOP field and debate and retain the maximum flexibility of a party that simply must win in 2016 or watch the Supreme Court slip away and the Obamacare revolution reach the “not possible to repeal” status its backers are prematurely claiming.

Romney is uniquely positioned to captain the “open convention”/ “favorite sons and daughters” movement as he can honestly claim “favorite son” status in five states—Michigan where he was born, Massachusetts where he built his business and was the governor, New Hampshire where he has summered with his vast clan for decades, Utah where he moved to turn around and save the 2002 Olympics, and, yes, California where he now spends a great chunk of the year. Romney wasn’t listed in the Granite State poll, but he won there in ’12 and was second in ’08, and the contrarians up there might warm to the noncampaign campaign. If Romney’s other four “favorite son” states vote on March 1 or March 15, there would be little chance of any momentum candidate ending the primary season before it began.

If Romney were to declare a “five-state-plus” campaign for the purposes of pushing for an “open convention,” his donor networks and old staff would light up at least in part, as would the smiles of every governor who’d like a plausible reason to get his or her own name into the mix in 2016 without the heavy lifting of the endless campaign that chugs to life the day after the vote this fall. Even the handful of folks eyeing an old-fashioned start-to-finish run might embrace a campaign designed to keep a momentum play from running the board early.

Political reporters and talk hosts, of course, would swoon: Finally, the Holy Grail, a convention that isn’t scripted down to the minute—a real political news event would generate months of cable coverage.

Thus, Romney would be “in” but not “in in.” He could dismiss Iowa and South Carolina from the start and campaign—at a very leisurely pace—in his five core states, and make the arguments for an open convention: that extended attention and serious, structured debates are good for the party’s ideas, that a momentum candidate isn’t, that stuff happens and money needn’t be spent destroying everyone else on the front bench. He can also speak for all the governors and senators who have a stake in being listened to seriously. He’d be the candidate urging candidacies by Nikki Haley (S.C.), Susana Martinez (N.M.), and Mary Fallin (Okla.). A nice place on the political dial, that.

And if a five-state-plus campaign did bring about an open convention, the person most likely to benefit would be Romney’s running mate in 2012—Rep. Paul Ryan—a man who probably isn’t running in 2016 but who might be the likeliest candidate to bring the  party together after a dozen different folks amass significant delegate totals along the way. Another senior figure who might welcome a tenth of a campaign from Romney would be John Thune, the South Dakota senator who almost ran in 2012 but eyed his blossoming leadership prospects in the Senate and demurred. Thune could easily be South Dakota’s “favorite son” and perhaps some nearby states’ as well.

A good question is whether “favorite son” delegates are actually controlled by their candidates. I asked Sean Spicer, the RNC’s communications director, and the answer is complicated by the need to have a minimum number of states in your column to have your name placed in nomination. Rule 40 of the GOP presently requires the support of a majority of eight states to allow a name to be placed in nomination, which may require amendment if an open convention movement gains traction. The RNC did strengthen the rules binding delegates to their candidates in January, but the rules vary by state. Rule 40 could end up having unforeseen consequences in a year when a couple of dozen favorite sons/daughters picked up wins along the way, and the deadline for changing rules is September of this year. But if unprecedented stuff happens, rules have to be amended no matter the date. The RNC would certainly feel pressure from the successful favorite sons and daughters controlling the delegations that had empowered them to help guide the proceedings in Cleveland, but as of now, Rule 40 is a spanner in the works of an open convention. 

The party of Lincoln’s first victorious campaign—Lincoln’s own in 1860—began with an open convention. It met in Chicago in mid-May. (Thanks to the “Reince reforms,” 2016’s GOP gathering will be earlier than in recent years, in late June or early July.) Five candidates polled well on the first ballot in Chicago’s Wigwam, and it took three (and a half) ballots to get Lincoln over the top.

So if the 2012 nominee were to declare he wasn’t running a full-scale campaign, but would be seeking delegates in those five named states and a few others where no favorite son or daughter actually stepped forward, his “no, no, no, no, no” would remain intact while blocking a rush to judgment that could lead the
GOP to nominate a candidate with little chance of winning the general.

Even Ted Cruz might back such a move, seeing in it a way to prove that his voice is the authentic voice of the grassroots, and not an accident of party reforms gone awry. The party’s biggest donors, hesitating now to place any bet, could safely park some money in the coffers of Romney’s mini-campaign with the explanation that they see the many advantages of the open convention, and then Priebus would get to the task of organizing debates that might have to use a tiered stage. Not the best of problems, but also not the worst.

All we need is for Romney to not say “no, no, no, no, no” to a mini-campaign.

Hugh Hewitt’s nationally syndicated radio show is heard in more than 120 cities every weekday afternoon. A lawyer and law professor, he is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and Townhall.com.

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