RNC Chairman Reince Priebus downplays fears of convention chaos at spring meeting
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — No consensus? No problem!
Republicans are staring down the barrel of a potentially chaotic contested convention in July, but here at the party's spring meeting, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and his top aides are all about reassuring the rank and file — and the nation at large — that they'll pull together to defeat a Democrat.
In the Sunshine State and beyond, Priebus has had the unenviable and delicate task of trying to keep his party from further fraying as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich continue to slug it out in a bitter primary slog that continues into June.
The GOP will ultimately unite behind the delegates' pick, no matter how hot the rhetoric gets, Priebus insisted during a gathering that's featured Trump surrogates insisting he's not as over the top as he makes out, Cruz saying he can win over delegates at a contested convention and underdog Kasich arguing he's still very much in the game.
"Now, I know our candidates are going to say some things to attract attention. That's part of politics. But we all need to get behind the nominee," Priebus told a sea of GOP officers assembled in a beach resort ballroom.
Still, Priebus made clear during a Friday session that no one gets an A for effort when it comes to winning the delegates required to carry the Republican standard into the general election.
"We aren't going to hand the nomination to anyone with a plurality, no matter how close they are to 1,237," he said in an unmistakable rebuttal to Trump's insistence that the rules are "rigged" against him.
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"You need a majority. 'Almost' only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
Both Priebus and co-chair Sharon Day also tried to keep the party's eyes on the prize of the Oval Office — and the need to vanquish Hillary Clinton to get there.
Day tore into Clinton, a long-beloved target of GOP scorn, arguing she is a consummate liar who risked a national security breach as secretary of state, and who as president would trample the well-being of the prosperous and the "unborn" alike.
On Thursday, Republican officials publicly debated — and defeated — a proposal to change the rules governing the July convention in Cleveland in a way that could have arguably made it harder for party elites to advance a "white knight" candidate if the open convention deadlocks.
As the spring meeting wound down, with both Cruz and Kasich having made personal appearances and Trump having dispatched top aides Paul Manafort and Rick Wiley to pitch the party on his candidacy, GOP leaders tried to keep up a hopeful tone.
"I think as a group we are very much united. There might be a few people that aren't that way, [but] we all understand it's our job to beat Hillary or Bernie," Alaska Republican Party Chairman Peter Goldberg said in an interview.
"It's not our job to denigrate any of the candidates who are on our side."
Of course, lobbying continued throughout the meeting, and despite the efforts of Priebus and company to project a unified message in Hollywood, there was indeed plenty of public and private denigration of the trio of finalists.
David Norcross, a longtime GOP leader who oversaw the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, came away saying he's still convinced the common goal of stopping Clinton would ultimately pull the party together despite the inevitable individual disappointments of those who don't see their candidate cross the finish line.
"It is what it is, and I think people have begun to accept that we are where we are," he said.
"The delegates are going to choose a nominee and we're going to go get behind him... I found [the meeting] not at all downbeat — and it could have been kind of flat, and it wasn't."
Amid the heightened focus on the GOP as it struggles toward consensus, Priebus reminded the party that they've seen this movie before: Abraham Lincoln himself became president after emerging the victor after three rounds of ballots at the contested convention of 1860.
"The three other men running that year went on to rally around him and later even served in his cabinet," Priebus reminded the crowd.
"They had their differences, to be sure. But even though all four often disagreed with each other, they didn't just take their marbles and go home," he pointedly said.
"They knew the challenges facing the country were too steep to justify splintering apart."