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GOP officials excited about bigger role ND delegates could play in contested convention

GOP Executive Director Roz Leighton1 / 2
Curly Haugland2 / 2

BISMARCK – North Dakota will represent just a sliver of the 2,472 delegates at the Republican National Convention in July, but the prospect of a contested convention has party officials excited about the state’s 28 delegates possibly playing a bigger role in choosing the GOP presidential nominee.

Under state party rules, North Dakota’s delegates to the convention July 18-21 in Cleveland are not bound to any candidate, leaving them “free to vote their conscience on all balloting.”

Media outlets as far flung as the United Kingdom have taken note of that as they speculate on the chances of a brokered convention if frontrunner Donald Trump fails to secure a majority of bound delegates from state primaries and caucuses.

“I think it’s great,” North Dakota GOP Executive Director Roz Leighton said. “We saw a lot of pushback about not having a caucus, so I think the national attention we’re getting for our unbound delegates is a really great thing in showing the people of North Dakota that we do have a voice and we do have a vote in the process, and it’s maybe even more of a role than they originally thought.”

Trump needs at least 1,237 delegates to capture the nomination at the convention. He has 458 pledged to him so far, with key winner-take-all primaries Tuesday in Florida and Ohio.

If he fails to secure a majority, a contested convention could make the 112 unbound delegates – including the 28 from North Dakota – crucial votes in deciding the eventual nominee.

State party rules require North Dakota’s 28 delegates to caucus in Cleveland or beforehand to discuss voluntarily apportioning delegates on the first ballot as a way to reflect the results of the state party’s presidential caucus.

The problem is, there was no such caucus this year.

The state party has held a non-binding presidential straw poll in the last three or four election cycles, but its executive committee decided not to have one this year because the Republican National Committee insisted the results bind the state’s delegates, said Curly Haugland of Bismarck, a National Committeeman since 1999 and member of the RNC Rules Committee.

Haugland noted that, had the poll results been binding in 2012, eventual runner-up Rick Santorum would have received the state’s delegates, despite having dropped out of the race in April.

The lack of a binding caucus prompted U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., to launch his own online straw poll in early February, saying North Dakota Republicans were being left out of the presidential preference process. Results released Wednesday showed Trump winning with more than 37 percent of the 4,740 votes submitted.

Haugland, a former state party chairman, said North Dakota’s unbound delegates “certainly will” play a more important role in a contested convention – though, by his reading of the history of the rules, none of the convention delegates should be bound. He planned to send a letter to his fellow RNC members Friday containing what he called “conclusive evidence” that all delegates are unbound.

“I think it might put an end to the notion that these stupid primaries are going to choose our nominee,” he said.

And, if he has his way, it’ll be an eight-way race for the nomination.

Before the national convention begins, Haugland plans to introduce an amendment at the Convention Rules Committee that would allow any candidate with at least one bound delegate to be deemed nominated on the first ballot. That would make Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Trump all eligible.

“What I’m trying to do is get a level, clear playing field,” said Haugland, who served on the Convention Rules Committee in 2008 and 2012.

State party chairman Kelly Armstrong, a state senator from Dickinson, has said he plans to form a committee after the November election to develop binding caucus rules.

“There was enough pushback on the caucus issue … I think we do need to do it in the future,” Leighton said.

So far, the number of people applying to be considered as a national convention delegates is on par with 2012, Leighton said. The applicaiton deadline is March 28.

“As there’s more attention drawn to this, I think we could definitely see an uptick in people wanting to apply,” she said.

How NDGOP national delegates are selected

North Dakota’s 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention will be nominated by an 11-member Committee on Permanent Organization, which is co-chaired by the state’s two GOP National Committee members, Curly Haugland and Sandy Boehler.

The other members are state party chairman Kelly Armstrong of Dickinson and two members from each of the party’s four regions selected by their region chairmen.

The committee uses weighted criteria to pick the delegates, including whether they’ve been elected as a delegate to the prior state convention, their history of volunteering for the party, service as a state or party official, whether they’ve run for office and their contributions to the party.

Haugland, Boehler and Armstrong are automatic national delegates. The other 25 have to be approved by delegates to the state convention April 1-3 in Fargo.

National delegates can also be nominated from the floor at the state convention. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven are automatic nominees if they choose to be, but they still must be approved by state convention delegates, party Executive Director Roz Leighton said.

The deadline to apply for nomination as a national delegate is March 28.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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