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Nation’s capital gets rare chance to influence GOP presidential race

In this Feb. 25 file photo, Republican presidential candidates, from left, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich debate take part in the Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Houston in Houston. (David J. Phillip)
In this Feb. 25 file photo, Republican presidential candidates, from left, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich debate take part in the Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Houston in Houston. (David J. Phillip)
Ben Nuckols Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The latest contest in the Republican presidential primary season will be held in a place where Republican votes hardly ever matter: the nation’s capital.

Nineteen delegates – as many as Hawaii has – are up for grabs in the District of Columbia’s GOP convention, an unprecedented event created by a quirk of party and local election rules.

There are only 27,000 registered Republicans living in Washington – just 6 percent of the city’s voters. With the nomination far from locked up, voters who bother to show up Saturday at a downtown hotel will have tremendous influence over how the city’s delegates are divided.

“In terms of being a D.C. Republican, we have not mattered this much in a presidential primary since Frederick Douglass was a precinct captain here,” D.C. GOP executive director Patrick Mara said.

Here are some facts and figures about the convention:


Nobody knows. There have been no polls of the city’s GOP voters. Donald Trump narrowly won a straw poll at a party fundraising dinner last month, but the sample size was so small that it means little.

No candidates are planning appearances in Washington ahead of the convention, but their campaigns have been flooding Republican voters with phone calls. Marco Rubio has sent out mail.

Among the 160 people running for delegates, Rubio leads with 31 endorsements. John Kasich has 24 delegate candidates, while 22 favor Trump and Ted Cruz has 18.

In the past, District Republicans have been friendly to establishment candidates. In 2012, Mitt Romney got 70 percent of the vote, and John McCain got 68 percent in 2008. The local party has long been led by moderates, and gay Republicans have often held leadership positions, including the current chairman, Jose Cunningham.


While Republicans in Washington have little say in local politics, they’re influential in other ways. Candidates for delegate at Saturday’s convention include former officials from the Reagan and both Bush administrations, along with lobbyists, political strategists and think-tank wonks. Among them: former White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten; Anita McBride, former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush; and two former ambassadors.

While many in the GOP establishment are wary of Trump, McBride is keeping an open mind. While she questions whether he has the temperament to serve as president, she credits him for his ability to connect with voters.

“It’s a good thing to shake people up and wake people up and to really engage new faces and new voices,” McBride said. “I don’t believe for a minute that the Republican Party is going to be fractured and irrevocably damaged by all of this.”

C. Boyden Gray, who served as ambassador to the European Union under George H.W. Bush, now backs Cruz after initially supporting Jeb Bush. He also won’t rule out backing Trump if he wins the nomination.

“But I’m still not convinced he’s going to be the nominee,” Gray said.


History and circumstances suggest turnout will be light. In the past two presidential primaries, fewer than 6,000 Republicans voted – a turnout of no more than 20 percent. And that was when they could vote at precincts close to their homes. The convention will be run like a single “super precinct.” Voters will have to schlep downtown on a Saturday – on a day that many streets will be closed because of a marathon – and cast their ballots in a six-hour window.

The District’s delegates will be allocated proportionally unless one candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, which would make it winner-take-all. Mara hired a contractor from Virginia to administer the ballots, avoiding the city’s beleaguered Board of Elections. Polls close at 4 p.m., and results are expected to be announced around 9 p.m., in part because Orthodox Jews will be allowed to vote after sundown.

Local GOP leaders were forced to organize a convention because the District’s presidential primary is scheduled for June 14. That’s too late for Republicans, who forbid states, districts or territories from selecting delegates within 45 days of the Republican national convention. For Democrats, the District’s primary will be the last one before the convention.

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