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CLEVELAND — This week, watch Mike Lee.
The mild-mannered first-term U.S. senator from Utah will arrive here Wednesday night or Thursday morning to cast a significant vote in the long-odds battle being waged by some Republican delegates to snatch the party’s presidential nomination from Donald Trump.
Lee, 45, is one of Utah’s two members on the convention Rules Committee, which will vote at the end of the week on a motion to unbind the 2,472 convention delegates next week. If the committee sends the resolution to the convention floor, the whole convention would vote up or down on the measure.
The obstacles facing the Dump Trump effort are high. Multiple Trump campaign officials said Tuesday that their whip count indicated that the “conscience clause” would not get out of Rules, and that if it did, it would lose on the convention floor. There were no signs of nervousness in the Trump whip operation, one said.
Allies of the Dump Trump effort are more optimistic that the Rules Committee might pass the measure to the full convention, but less hopeful about their chances there. In addition, other observers of the process think that delegates trying to send the convention to multiple ballots by having a few hundred delegates abstain from voting on the first ballot is the better strategy.
Nonetheless, if the Rules Committee does keep the issue alive by sending the conscience clause to the floor of the convention, it could take on life in a way that’s hard to predict.
And Lee is at the heart of this battle. His support for or against the conscience clause proposal will send a powerful signal to those among the other 111 members of the Rules Committee who are wavering. Lee’s wife, Sharon — who, like her husband, was chosen by the other Utah delegates to represent them on the committee — is believed likely to follow his lead, so his decision could swing two votes of the 28 required to bring the motion to the floor. One member of the Rules Committee said many members believe that Lee’s support could be crucial.
A spokesman for Lee said Tuesday that the senator has made up his mind how he will vote and will share his decision with other members of the committee this week.
“Everyone’s lobbying him,” said a senior Trump campaign official.
So far, Lee has been tightlipped about his intentions. There are plenty of reasons, however, why he would vote against Trump on this issue.
Lee has publicly expressed his deep reservations about Trump’s candidacy. Very recently, he said in an interview with NewsMaxTV that Trump had made “religiously intolerant” statements, referring to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country. Lee noted that Trump is “wildly unpopular” in Utah, which is home to millions of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a “religious minority… who were ordered exterminated by the governor of Missouri in 1838.”
“I’d like some assurances that he’s going to be a vigorous defender for the U.S. Constitution,” Lee said.
And in May, Lee said of Trump: “He scares me to death.”
And Lee is a close ally of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who fought a bitter battle with Trump in the Republican primary. Trump mocked Cruz’s wife in one of his infamous retweets and alleged — based on a story in the National Enquirer with no apparent basis in fact — that Cruz’s father was connected to Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Lee was enraged by Trump’s accusation about Cruz’s father. “He said that. He actually said that. He said that without any scintilla, without a scintilla of evidence,” Lee told NewsMax.
And last, Lee is no stranger to taking unpopular positions inside his own party. He has not been as provocative toward party elders as has Cruz, but has nonetheless taken on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., many times during the past few years. Lee sought a leadership position within the Senate Republican Conference this spring, but was rebuffed by his fellow senators.
Lee, a lawyer, has clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and served as assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City. He will be a heavyweight on the convention Rules Committee, which has only one other member of Congress on it: Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico.
Trump has an experienced group of operatives running his whip operation on the convention Rules Committee, including William McGinley, one of the most knowledgeable GOP rules experts; Ed Matricardi, who helped run Mitt Romney’s delegate whip operation in 2012; Brian Jack, Trump’s national delegate director, and Mike Biundo, who was also on the convention floor for Romney’s whip operation in 2012 and who had high-profile jobs in the presidential campaigns of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ohio Gov. John Kasich before joining Trump’s campaign two weeks ago. The RNC has its own whip operation helping the Trump campaign, which includes veterans of multiple campaigns, like Chris LaCavita.
Insider GOP heavyweights on the Rules Committee like Bill Palatucci of New Jersey, a close adviser to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Henry Barbour, the national committeeman from Mississippi and nephew to former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, are also working to rally committee members to Trump’s cause.
The vote on the conscience clause is expected to take place either late Thursday or Friday, and will probably take the form of a roll call, requiring each of the 112 members to register his and her vote aloud. Until then, it’s hard to know exactly where each delegate stands.
At a Tuesday meeting of the standing Republican National Committee rules committee, which is separate from the convention Rules Committee, RNC General Counsel John Ryder offered a lengthy and detailed exposition explaining why he does not believe the rules allow delegates to go against their states’ primary results to vote their conscience, or for the rules to be changed to allow them to do so.
RNC committeeman Curly Haugland of North Dakota, who has argued for years that delegates are free to vote however they want at the convention, stood up and challenged Ryder. “He’s entitled to his opinion, and I’m entitled to mine,” Haugland said.
And on Tuesday morning, the Wall Street Journal editorial board argued that “there is nothing illegitimate” about a vote to unbind the delegates.
“A conscience vote would be unprecedented, but then this entire year has no precedent. Republicans should nominate the best candidate they think has the best chance of winning in November,” the Journal wrote.
Noting that Trump has said he’d win the nomination even if delegates were free to vote however they wanted — an unproven assertion at best — the Journal said that Trump “ought to welcome a conscience vote.”