Photo: AP

Given that a majority of Republican voters (52 percent!) would prefer someone other than Donald Trump as their presidential candidate, it comes as no surprise that a movement would emerge intent on realizing such a possibility, forcing a floor fight at the upcoming Republican National Convention and throwing an already flagging party into further disarray. The anti-Trump “Free the Delegates” group wants to persuade the Convention Rules Committee to adopt a “conscience clause,” which would allow delegates to avoid voting for a candidate who they feel is offensive to their religious or moral beliefs.

Whether the group will have the numbers to accomplish their goal remains an open question, but they have at least gotten the presumptive nominee’s attention. After Trump called the movement a “hoax” that had been “made up by the press,” campaign operatives began reaching out to Republican delegates to weigh their loyalties.

On a conference call held Sunday evening, The Huffington Post reports, Georgia delegate Bobby Booth claimed a Trump campaign operative had reached out to him to ask whether he’d been contacted by anti-Trump activists. “I told him I was seeking them out,” Booth said. Later on the call, Colorado delegate Kendal Unruh—who supports the conscience clause, and who also happens to be a member of the rules committee—said she believed that this would end Trump’s candidacy. “If there are Rules members who are listening in,” she said, “I need your votes.”

In an email obtained by Gawker, Minnesota GOP officials warned delegates that even if such a rule were to be approved it would not apply to that state’s delegates. “Regardless of a ‘conscience exemption’ or not, our Minnesota delegation will vote 17 for Rubio, 13 for Cruz, and 8 for Trump on the first ballot, per our caucus night presidential preference vote,” the email states. “At this point, the only thing that could change Minnesota’s vote on the first ballot would be a rule change regarding ballot access wherein a candidate with bound delegates would not appear on the first ballot.”

The anti-Trump movement is comprised of several factions, some of whom may share a primary goal of stopping the presumptive nominee from taking over their party but whose secondary goals are less clear. Unruh and the “Free the Delegates” group are supported by the libertarian Citizens in Charge Foundation—Grover Norquist sits on the board of directors—which has made Unbound: The Conscience of a Republican Delegate, a book by North Dakota GOP official Curly Haughland, available online for free. According to Haughland, delegates cannot actually be bound to candidates, and are free to vote at the convention for whomever they choose.

(Citizens in Charge is also backing a federal lawsuit filed by Virginia delegate Beau Correll—a Ted Cruz supporter—who argues that a state law binding delegates to the candidate who wins the most votes in the primary is unconstitutional.)

A commercial promoting the anti-Trump, free delegates agenda began airing this week, paid for by a recently-formed nonprofit, Delegates Unbound. One of the nonprofit’s cofounders, Eric O’Keefe, sits on the board of the Citizens in Charge Foundation. “Our effort is to provide political cover, understanding and education to the delegates,” cofounder Dane Waters told the Los Angeles Times. “We don’t have a dog in the hunt. We’re not trying to push any specific candidate,” he said. “As long as the delegates can vote freely, let the cards fall where they may.”

Unruh also denies that she has anybody in mind who could step out from the wings. “This literally is an ‘Anybody but Trump’ movement,” she told the Washington Post last week. “Nobody has any idea who is going to step in and be the nominee, but we’re not worried about that. We’re just doing that job to make sure that he’s not the face of our party.”

It’s certainly possible that that is the case—people do, from time to time, act purely on the strength of their convictions. It is also the case, however, that the Courageous Conservatives PAC, which has turned its attention towards the “Free the Delegates” movement, supported Texas senator Ted Cruz—who made his career on shady convention tactics—before he dropped out of the race.

Former Bogota, New Jersey, mayor Steve Lonegan—a Cruz supporter and spokesman for Courageous Conservatives—told NBC News that he plans on hiring East, West, and Central regional field directors to build a “comprehensive list of every single delegate.” NBC News reports:

The group is also planning to hire a full-time executive director, because the current staff is working on a volunteer basis, Lonegan said. An advance team is heading to Cleveland this week to build a command center outside the convention center.

Lonegan said the “most critical” step is airing ads for delegates who are “under duress” from state party officials or others for speaking out against Trump or in support of a change to the convention rules.

The group launched a small radio ad buy this past week targeting Iowa Rules Committee member Steve Scheffler, who Lonegan said had been “rather heavy-handed” in trying to persuade delegates to oppose a rules change.

Courageous Conservatives also wants to make sure delegates are aware of Haughland’s interpretation of convention rules—that is, that convention delegates are not really bound to particular candidates. According to the Los Angeles Times, Haughland is a longtime advocate of this notion, but it is not until this year that his ideas have gotten much establishment recognition.

“The last thing I would do is tell anybody to do something that’s contrary to their conscience,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said earlier this month. Fellow Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker, agreed. “I think his comments are legitimate,” the governor said last week. “I think historically, not just this year, delegates are and should be able to vote the way they see fit.

The movement is also supported by an ally of Marco Rubio, James Lamb, who served on the Florida senator’s campaign as a volunteer “bundler” and launched just this week. “This is the very purpose of having delegates as a safeguard in the first place: to prevent the hijacking of the party by a dangerously rouge [sic] loose canon leading an angry mob,” Lamb said in a statement. “Indeed, the delegates are the RNC’s Quality Assurance team and our best line of defense against a hostile takeover by nothing more than a common street bully.”

Or maybe this is just Trump’s big play to get out from under the burden of actually having to run for president.

Update – 6/29/16

In an email to Gawker, Paul Jacob, founder of the Citizens in Charge Foundation, wrote that his organization does not explicitly support or oppose the “Free the Delegates” movement.

“The Foundation has published a book, Unbound, which we believe is the best source of accurate information about the laws and party rules concerning the binding of GOP convention delegates, including an analysis of where such binding stands at present as well as the history of delegate-binding (or lack thereof) at Republican presidential conventions,” Jacob wrote, also noting that while he is a proud libertarian, the foundation is non-partisan. “Truthful information is not partisan, but a service to all.”

Also: “Your story mentioned two CICF board members, Grover Norquist and Eric O’Keefe. Beyond the book and the lawsuit, which the Foundation has played a significant part in, Mr. O’Keefe has also been active in other efforts related to RNC delegates being unbound, through the group, Delegates Unbound, as you reported. To my knowledge, Mr. Norquist has no such involvement on either side of that issue.”