The likelihood of the first contested Republican National Convention in more than half a century hung over local party members as they selected delegates Saturday at their Spokane County gathering.
Party members’ fervor this year to ensure delegate selection was unsurprising, said Dave Moore, Spokane County Republican Party chair. He said it’s clear the national party will be hosting a brokered convention in Cleveland, which would be the first time since 1952 a presidential candidate fails to earn enough votes on the first ballot to secure the nomination.
“Our No. 1 priority is to get delegates elected from Spokane County to the state convention, and then ultimately the national convention,” Moore said from Northern Quest Casino and Resort, where Spokane County Republicans held their convention. A clear majority of Spokane County Republicans voted to suspend discussion of a party platform until after delegates to the state convention were picked, causing frustration among some grass-roots party supporters.
The Republicans participating Saturday at the convention were selected in a GOP caucus earlier this year. The delegates picked Saturday will move on to the party’s state convention in Pasco next month to decide who will go to the Republican National Convention in July to vote for the party’s presidential nominee. Though those delegates will be bound in the first round of balloting to reflect the will of voters in the May 24 primary election, they would be able to vote however they choose if no candidate earns the 1,237 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination on the first ballot.
That outcome seems more likely after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz picked up wins in Wisconsin and Colorado last week over front-runner Donald Trump, who remains nearly 500 votes shy of wrapping up the nomination with 769 still up for grabs during the primary campaign. Washington will send 44 delegates to Cleveland.
Though presidential preference wasn’t on the agenda, the majority of those in attendance sported Cruz campaign stickers, among them state Rep. Matt Shea and Spokane County Commissioner Nancy McLaughlin. In the afternoon, Spokane County delegates split up by legislative district to make their pitches to attend the state convention. Many took the opportunity, in 30-second speeches made to their fellow Republicans, to declare their allegiance to a particular candidate.
Among them was 22-year-old Abigail Osborne, who was attending a county convention for the first time. Osborne said she’d vote for Trump if required to by the rules, but her preference is Cruz and she’d support him in subsequent rounds of voting.
“The most important thing is that he has a proven track record of being a conservative,” said Osborne, who was elected to attend the state convention by her peers. “Not just a Republican, a conservative. He’s pro-life, which is a huge issue for me.”
Osborne said she has misgivings about Trump’s history supporting Democratic ideas and candidates. Betsey Lemes, another Republican vying to represent Spokane County at the state convention, agreed.
“His answers change, depending on who the audience is,” said Lemes, who described herself as an Air Force wife, and who was also picked to attend the state convention. “Ted Cruz isn’t like that.”
Lemes said she couldn’t, in good conscience, vote for Trump. She told conventiongoers she was “steadfastly” in Cruz’s camp, and pumped her fist after her name was read as a state delegate.
Though they were in the minority, several delegates said their top pick was the New York real estate mogul, including John Ahern, a former state representative. Matthew van Hook, an Iraq War veteran, said he believes Trump would be a better commander in chief than Cruz, though he’d vote for whichever candidate the party would select.
“He’s not a career politician,” van Hook said of Trump, who he believed would fight efforts to reduce the size of the military. “He can’t be bought.”
Michael Riley, who graduated from Eastern Washington University in the 1980s and said he’s been politically active since then, also said he prefers Trump because of his status as a political outsider.
“I just think he’s a change,” Riley said. “He’s a nice change from the standard old politicians. I just feel like there’s been too many Bushes, too many Clintons, too many politicians from the old style. Let’s give somebody who’s not technically a politician a try.”
Riley, who has attended several Republican conventions and caucuses, said the discourse this year was relatively calm compared to gatherings in previous elections. There were few outbursts as delegates proclaimed their allegiances at the microphone.
Cruz supporters were proclaiming victory after the first round of balloting in the 6th Legislative District. Twenty-seven of the 29 delegates picked to attend the state convention said they support Cruz.
That outcome was due in part to the efforts of Harold Malmsten, a precinct committee officer who voted for delegates but who is unable to attend the state convention himself. Malmsten described himself as an “ABT” Republican – “Anybody but Trump.”
“I can’t imagine him taking such a pay cut to be president,” said Malmsten, who was backing Marco Rubio but said he now supports Cruz, and voted only for delegates who identified as Cruz supporters. “I think Trump’s campaign is all about Trump.”
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