Inside the Desperate Final Days of the 'Stop Trump' Effort

With the RNC just a week away, and no alternate candidate, these anti-Trump Republicans are pulling a Hail Mary

"People hate Donald Trump so much — so much — that they don't even care who the candidate is" who takes his place as nominee, says a GOP lobbyist. Credit: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times/Redux

On Friday night, there was a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser in a D.C. suburb, and on Sunday, a conference call outlining a campaign strategy. With just one week until the start of the Republican National Convention, "Never Trump" Republicans are waging an all-out war to wrest the nomination from Donald Trump's tiny grip.

The only thing they're still lacking is a candidate to replace him.

Before any white knight can trot forward, the Never Tumpers will have to clear a path. On Sunday night's call, a group of rogue delegates led by Regina Thompson — Colorado delegate, RNC credentials committee member, and executive director of Free the Delegates, one of several groups that have sprung up to oppose Trump's bid — outlined the varied strategies they're pursuing in the precious few days left before Trump is officially made GOP nominee.

In the early part of this week, a Virginia judge is expected to rule on one delegate's suit challenging a state law that binds delegates to the state's primary results. Beau Correll, the plaintiff in that case, said Sunday, "If Virginia's binding statute is struck down — and we're all cautiously optimistic about this, that the judge will rule on substantive grounds — 20 states are going to be in play, politically." He name-checked delegate-rich California and winner-take-all Arizona, in particular.

In the later part of the week, the RNC rules committee will convene in Cleveland to write the bylaws governing this year's convention. Free the Delegates and sister group Delegates Unbound are pushing for the consideration of three separate proposals. The biggest share of their energy has been devoted to lobbying members of the rules committee to support a "conscience clause" that would allow delegates to vote for someone other than the winner they are bound to by their state's primary results.

Two other proposals were discussed as well: one that would call for a secret ballot at the convention rather than a public vote, and another that would give delegates greater influence in selecting the party's nominee for vice president. Interest in influencing the VP pick gained steam with reports this weekend that, following his contentious meeting with congressional Republicans, Trump was considering asking retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a lifelong Democrat, to be his running mate.

Correll discussed the merits of the VP proposal, which he called "the arranged marriage option": "I think it's a good, common-sense proposal to add a counter-weight to Trump's instability and help ensure that delegates, who are unbound, have a choice for who the vice president is, thereby ensuring a conservative partner in attempting to fight Hillary Clinton in the general election."

Any of the three proposals will need the support of at least 28 members of the rules committee in order to be brought to the floor of the convention. Kendal Unruh, Colorado delegate and co-founder of Free the Delegates, has said she believes they have the support of at least that many members of the 112-person committee. 

If they did get their proposals out of the rules committee and onto the floor, Thompson and Unruh would have support on the floor from delegates like 17-year-old Jace Laquerre from Vermont, who is concerned Trump's unpopularity with millennials could damage the party longterm. (Laquerre will be 18 by Election Day.)

"If you look at the polls, or you walk around a high school or college campus, it's pretty clear the vast majority of young people and millennials do not want Donald Trump to be our president, so it's very hard to grow our party," Laquerre said. And he's right: A Pew poll released last week showed Trump was losing 18- to 29-year-old voters to both Hillary Clinton and Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson. "I think unbinding the delegates and finding an alternate solution would be best for the party." 

(The Trump campaign, for its part, has made little effort to ingratiate itself to the GOP's youngest delegate. It filed a motion to dispute Laquerre's convention credentials but, as the teen noted on Sunday, "in typical Trump-ground-game fashion, they were unorganized and they filed it a day late, so chances are it will get thrown out.")

Free the Delegates will need cash to sustain its efforts through the convention. Luckily for the group's organizers and supporters, registered lobbyist Jack Burkman says there's no short supply of money to support the anti-Trump efforts.

Burkman and his wife Susan a hosted that $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser for the Free the Delegates PAC at their home in Arlington, Virginia, Friday. He says the event raised a little more than $500,000.

Burkman, it's worth noting, has his own complicated history with Trump. In September, the then-Jeb Bush supporter took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Daily News calling Trump a "joke" with "no moral compass." In April, after Trump clinched the nomination, Burkman announced his intention to raise some $200 million for Trump, before canceling a planned fundraiser on receipt of a threatening letter from the candidate's attorneys.

Whether it was the letter that did it, or the fact that, as he says, "if Donald Trump is the nominee, Hillary Clinton is going to steamroll us into oblivion," Burkman is back firmly in the anti-Trump camp. "His temperament and his intellect are lacking in the ways needed to be president," he says. "He has occupied every single point on the political spectrum. He's worse than Arianna Huffington. In the Nineties, she was a far-right supporter of [Newt] Gingrich. Now she's a communist. But she did it in 20 years; Trump's done it in ten years."

Still, despite the start of the convention being just a week away, he's not losing sleep over who should be the nominee — nor would he say much about who's on the short list. "Some of them would be names you know, some of them would be names you might not," he says. "They're all highly conservative."

In the end, it doesn't much matter who it is — to Burkman, or to many others. "There is so much pent-up frustration among Republican lobbyists in Washington. They want to give money against Trump," Burkman says. "People hate Donald Trump so much — so much — that they don't even care who the candidate is."