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‘Never Trump’ forces converge on Cleveland for last stand over party’s nomination

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)

Think of it as a counterinsurgency within the Republican revolution.

Suburban mom Kendal Unruh, 51, doesn’t look like much of a rebel, but she’s descended upon Cleveland to wage a long-shot battle that GOP establishment leaders gave up on long ago: to deny Donald Trump the party’s presidential nomination.

The conservative activist, who hasn’t missed a Republican convention since 1988, left her Colorado home to lead a rag-tag band of party faithful still clinging to the hope that they can nominate anyone else but Trump.

Party leaders with similar reservations about Trump have already given up trying to fight against the businessman’s strong tide of support within the GOP base. Many have opted to skip the convention or swallow their pride and fall in line behind Trump.

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But Unruh has come to fight, describing the struggle in biblical terms as an epic campaign for the soul of the Republican Party.

“I can’t believe the others can’t see so clearly what’s going on,” said Unruh, who works as a Christian high school teacher in Denver. “They want so desperately to win they’re willing to sacrifice a lot of ideals.”

Though Trump’s anti-establishment campaign drew record numbers of GOP primary voters, some of the party’s longtime grass-roots activists are vowing to take back control from a candidate they say does not represent Republican principles.

Unruh, who backed Sen. Ted Cruz in the primary, said her distaste for Trump’s bullying style hardened back in May, when the real estate mogul blasted Colorado’s complicated caucus system as “rigged.” She said Trump was knowingly misrepresenting the process.

“I found out he could lie and had no compunction about lying,” she said.

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She and others from several loosely aligned groups are staging a last-ditch campaign during pre-convention organizing meetings this week in Cleveland to “Free the Delegates” – pushing for a change in party rules that would allow convention-goers to vote for the candidate of their choice, rather than the one chosen by their state’s primary voters.

The crusade is likely to go down in flames. Even if Unruh’s group succeeds in the wonky business of crafting favorable rules at the organizing sessions, Republicans are unlikely to dump Trump during prime-time convention coverage next week in what would be interpreted as a sign of party chaos and disunity. The country hasn’t seen a floor fight for the nomination in decades.

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Insurgents don’t even have a consensus alternative candidate. Some back Cruz while others support Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All three men are expected to be in town next week.

But that hardly matters to Unruh and others. Party purists say they simply want to show they did something – anything – to save the party of Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln from being hijacked by Trump, or at least lay the groundwork to begin picking up the pieces should he drag the party down to defeat.

“The ‘Never Trump’ folks are emblematic of this resistance element in the Republican Party right now,” said Kevin Madden, a former top aide to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney and former House Speaker John A. Boehner. Madden opposes Trump, but is not part of the “Free the Delegates” movement.

“Their long-term goal will be to get the party back to reform and ideas,’’ he said, “restructuring or rebuilding the party in Donald Trump’s aftermath.”

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Republican party officials are uncomfortable with the prospect of the convention – usually a pageantry of party unity – descending into reality TV-style chaos.

As delegates arrived in Cleveland for the rules-setting sessions this week, tensions were high. Unruh’s allies had a visible presence, distributing copies of a manifesto asserting that no delegates are bound by party rules.

That argument was countered by John Ryder, a Republican Party attorney who tried to clip the mutiny by flatly asserting: “That’s not true.”

Under existing Republican National Committee rules, most of the convention’s 2,472 delegates must cast their first-round votes according to their state primary and caucus results.

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Trump is poised for an easy win. He needs 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination, and scooped up 1,543 while winning 37 states in the primary season, according to an Associated Press tally.

But Unruh and her colleagues are seeking a resolution from the party’s rules committee that would explicitly allow delegates to vote as they wish.

Knowing that such a “conscience clause” is not likely to be adopted by the committee, they are hoping to convince at least a quarter of the panel – 28 members – to back the plan and produce a minority report.

Then two sets of proposed rules would go before the full convention for debate next week.

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“You can expect to see an aggressive effort from both sides,” said Matt Moore, a South Carolina delegate on the rules committee who does not support the free-the-delegates effort. “Even if they could, the spirit of the Republican Party is we should adhere to the election results. Donald Trump won.”

Others, though, say concerns about Trump’s unconventional candidacy have created enough support among delegates for a full airing of the nomination issue.

“When you try and force unity, I’m not sure that works very well,” said Saul Anuzis, a former party chairman from Michigan who backed Cruz but said he would vote for Trump because the businessman won that state’s primary.

“I’d argue let them have the vote of conscience,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an anti-Trump amendment .... There’s a sympathy among the majority of the delegates to allow a conscience amendment to come into play.”

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Informal whip counts show some two dozen rules committee members may back Unruh’s plan, though numbers remain in flux.

One wild card will be Cruz ally Sen. Mike Lee of Utah – a conservative leader and committee member – whose approach will likely sway others to his side.

The threat of an insurrection led to a tense and at times conspiratorial atmosphere as the committee kicked off its meetings Thursday. Proceedings were repeatedly delayed, apparently due to a printer jam that hindered distributing new amendments. The explanation elicited some skepticism among committee watchers.

“Recess until 1 pm. Probably not the printer. Not an accident this happened when Sen. Mike Lee arrived. Can he fix printers?” tweeted Ben Ginsburg, a veteran Republican lawyer and RNC rules expert.

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Indeed, the lag coincided with a closed-door meeting that included Unruh reportedly with GOP Chair Reince Priebus and Lee. Dozens of reporters huddled outside the convention meeting room as RNC staffers stood guard outside.

One GOP strategist gave the effort a 30% chance of success – up from 20% last week – but added there is value in simply raising the issue.

“You have to at least show that you tried,” said the strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the situation. “I don’t think it’s helpful to the party to sit back and allow everything Trump stands for to happen. There is a symbolic reason to do it. There’s also momentum in the idea that it could actually happen.”

Others believe that even if a vote comes to the floor, Trump will survive to become the nominee.

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“We’re going to pick him anyway,” said Steve House, the GOP chairman from Colorado, who viewed the situation through his own historic lens: “How do I explain to our six children that we changed the rules at the end of the process? That doesn’t make much sense.”

Unruh is not backing down. She said she’s willing to endure the wrath of party leaders, even the scorn of former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, to stand up against Trump.

Before arriving in Cleveland, she attended a recent event back home in Colorado when Palin sneered at the anti-Trump movement as “Republicans Against Trump — or RAT for short.”

As Unruh sat in the audience, she received a text from her daughter. It read: “I’m proud to be a rat.”

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lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Twitter: @LisaMascaro

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