Sunday column: Trump’s TN triumph undermined?

Donald Trump backers rightly saw last weekend’s party maneuvering on Tennessee delegates to the Republican National Convention as undercutting their candidate’s prospects for winning the presidential nomination, but they may have undercut those prospects further with their reaction.

Consider the case of Ken Gross, a member of the GOP’s State Executive Committee representing Knox County who was appointed a Trump delegate — one on a slate put together by state Republican Chairman Ryan Haynes and his staff after much negotiating and approved by the executive committee on a 40-25 vote.

If you’re not familiar with the arcane rules for delegate selection — and very few people are — most of Tennessee’s 58 delegates to the GOP convention were chosen by voting on individual delegate candidates in the March 1 presidential preference primary. But some are appointed by the executive committee and assigned to represent a designated candidate based on the presidential preference primary results. That was the focus of last weekend’s meeting.

Trump is entitled to 33 of the 58 delegates; Ted Cruz gets 16; Marco Rubio nine.

Those arcane party rules call for the candidates to be consulted on those who will be designated to represent them as delegates. But the rules do not require the candidates’ approval of the appointees. The Trump and Cruz campaigns had a list of the people they wanted to be appointed. Haynes and the party staff, after duly consulting with candidate representatives, honored some of the requests, but ignored others.

The Trump folk, led by Tennessee campaign director Daren Morris, declared themselves outraged at the selection of “anti-Trump” people to serve as Trump delegates, and Gross was one focus of their wrath. To make their point, Morris and others cited a Facebook post Gross made that characterized Trump as a “liberal Democrat.”

But Gross says nobody with the Trump campaign bothered to consult with him. If they had done so, Gross says, he would have told them that the Facebook post was just a bit of routine back-and-forth banter that is part of every intra-party political campaign.

Gross said that since Trump won in Knox County, which he represents, he feels obliged to vote at the convention the way Trump wants him to vote — not just for the first two ballots at a contested convention, as required by the state rules, but afterwards as well.

In other words, he was prepared to be an ultra-loyal Trump delegate but found himself denounced as a “Trojan horse,” a pawn of the establishment. An anonymously written blog posted his phone number and urged people to call to criticize — just as Trump supporters had posted Haynes’ cellphone number and urged that he be badgered.

It’s been enough, Gross said, to leave him questioning the idea of being an ultra-loyal Trump delegate after the two first two ballots, should the convention be contested.

The Cruz folk also didn’t get their way on all appointed delegates. A standout on that front was the designation of Chris Devaney, former state GOP chairman, as a Cruz delegate. Let’s just say that Cruz is not an establishment Republican candidate and Devaney is known as an ultra-establishment fellow, rather like Gov. Bill Haslam, a designated Rubio delegate.

The Cruz campaign, in contrast to the Trump troops, was diplomatically silent about the proceedings last weekend. If the convention is contested, that just might turn out to be a smart move — coupled with some delegate cultivation efforts.

Tennessee’s Republican establishment is alarmed about the prospect of Trump as the party nominee, the fear being that he could do for Democrats what Barack Obama has done for Republicans in our state. Why, some were privately fretting last week that Trump as the nominee could lead to a loss of seats in the GOP’s supermajority in the Legislature.

Haynes meticulously followed the rules in putting together a slate that, to win the required executive committee approval, needed to include people respected by a majority of panel’s members, a rather exclusive club with divisions reflecting the extraordinary conflict within the GOP today. It worked and the critical howls ensued.

By coincidence or otherwise, the aftermath could make the claims of an anti-Trump bias a self-fulfilling prophecy.