In a normal presidential election, being selected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention would be the crowning achievement for people like Kathy Martin, 70, who have worked for years behind the scenes in Kansas Republican politics.
After a week of attending special meals, casting votes in patriotic clothing and basking in the glow, her plan is to return home from her first convention in Cleveland to see the beef sale at the Clay County fair.
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Ron and Susan Estes, husband and wife delegates from Wichita, met 25 years ago this month at a Republican event, and this convention is supposed to be a moment for them to toast the intermingling of a quarter century of romance and politics.
John Whitmer, a state representative from Wichita, is still hoping to bump into Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich on the convention floor, and many of Kansas’ Republican delegates plan to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, see the Great Lakes and explore a giant replica of Noah’s ark during their free time.
But, in addition to using words like “excited,” more than half of Kansas’ 40 Republican delegates used words like “concerned,” “unnerved” and “worried” to describe their feelings about the convention that starts Monday. Long-time convention attendees said this could be the “most memorable” convention they’ve been to, “a historic” convention that, if things go awry, could descend into “absolute chaos.”
One reason is that Kansas Republicans select their delegates over nearly two years, a process that rewards long-time conservative activists. But Donald Trump, the candidate at the top of the ticket, does not have a long history with the party, they said. “Trump is an unusual nominee,” said Dave Bohnenblust, a delegate from McPherson. “He doesn’t have a long history of being a conservative Republican.”
Many of Kansas’ delegates said they are looking for reassurance that Trump will support the anti-abortion, anti-big-government policies that they have spent their lives pursuing.
Kansas’ delegates also are worried that protests this year could turn violent. Violence at Trump events across the country has led to the arrest of Trump supporters and protesters. And the murder of police officers in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter protest July 7 has made several of them even more nervous about what could transpire.
A few Kansas delegates, such as Randall Duncan in Salina, have been Trump supporters all along and believe that Trump will draw on his celebrity contacts to turn what is often a relatively boring infomercial for party regulars into entertainment that will captivate the nation.
Other delegates, like Dalton Glasscock, 21, in Wichita, have taken umbrage with Trump and are planning on “going rogue.” Glasscock remembers running up and down the aisles and cheering for Mitt Romney in 2012, but this time he hopes that, instead of a coronation, the convention will be an opportunity to reclaim the identity of the party that Trump has co-opted.
But most of the delegates said that, even though Trump was not their first, second or third choice, and not even in their top 16 out of 17 for some, they plan to support him anyway. That’s because they don’t want the political process to look rigged to primary voters who chose him and because, as much as they have reservations about Trump, they dislike Hillary Clinton more.
Many Kansas delegates said they have more reservations about Trump than the nominees in past conventions.
“Donald Trump is a whole different kind of candidate,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “The general sense is everybody is ready to support him, but they want to be sold a little bit more.”
Susan Estes, a delegate from Wichita, said she has been talking to Republican leaders at every level about the need to change the rhetoric Trump has used and focus on policy solutions to issues like illegal immigration. That way the party can become the kind of big-tent party it needs to be, she said. “I think we need to be careful about how we talk about people’s lives so deeply,” Estes said.
Willie Dove, a state representative, said Trump’s rhetoric makes it challenging to recruit more black Republicans like himself to the party. “I just think Trump has a terrible filter, he needs someone to help him,” Dove said. “…Where did you get that from? How did that come out of your mouth? You are supposed to be a national spokesman and here you are spewing things out that I don’t even think you believe.”
Richard Kiper, a Vietnam War veteran and a delegate with a long history of military service, said that although he supports his candidacy, he thinks Trump is naive about foreign policy. “I have a problem with all the generalities,” Kiper said. “Trump speaks in bumper stickers and rhetoric that he thinks people want to hear. And a lot of people do want to hear it because they’re tired of how things have been going. But it has to be tinged with reality, and I’m very concerned about that.”
Mary Kay Culp, a longtime abortion opponent, said she thinks it’s common for people like Trump to oppose abortion once they learn more about the pro-life position, so she finds Trump’s conservative evolution believable. She also thinks it will hard for Trump to backtrack on all the promises he has made to anti-abortion conservatives.
Still she plans on staying vigilant at the convention. “When he rightfully said how he doesn’t like abortion but, well, Planned Parenthood does some good things – that was very worrisome to a lot of us,” Culp said.
Beverly Gossage, a delegate who analyzes the health care industry, said she agrees with Trump that the Affordable Care Act needs to be repealed, but wants to meet with his health care policy director to advocate for the right alternatives.
And she’s worried about whether Trump understands he has to follow the U.S. Constitution. “He’s not a king and he’s not an emperor,” Gossage said. “We have a republic and we have a balance of power.”
But for some Kansas delegates, the focus on Trump’s rhetoric has obscured the fact that he’s the only candidate taking illegal immigration and threats of terrorism seriously.
“I do feel he does have the best answers for almost everything he talks about,” said Elaine Adams, a delegate from Hays. “But these politicians have been handled their whole life and if he had a proper handler for getting his message out, he would beat Hillary any day hands down, any day of the week.”
Amanda Grosserode, a representative from Lenexa, wrote in her application to become a delegate that: “This year, more than any other, is the possibility that the convention could have a contested nominee. I can be counted on to back a principled, consistent conservative.”
Now that Trump is the presumptive nominee, Grosserode has decided not to attend because of her children’s complicated baseball tournament schedule, she said, and the expense of attending. Delegates pay their own way and have to take the week off work, so many of Kansas’ delegates are older or retired, not a working mom like Grosserode.
David Lightner, a delegate from Olathe, has work in Cincinnati before the convention and is afraid that protesters will shut down the freeway that he has to drive through just to arrive at the convention.
Security is always tight, said some of the long-serving delegates, with the protection of the Secret Service, FBI, and police from several states, who will block off the highways and provide police escorts between hotels and the convention. Barker, who arrived a few days early, said hotel staff had already stopped one of his colleagues just because a badge was facing backward.
But many of the delegates who are attending for the first time said they were worried. “Given the violence we see elsewhere, I don’t know what to expect,” Gossage said.
Lukewarm for Trump
The reason so many delegates have such strong reservations about Trump has to do with how they were selected.
The first 12 of the 40 Kansas delegates are elected by precinct leaders at the district level. Culp, a Lenexa delegate, said so few voters tend to cast ballots for precinct leaders that she won her precinct by a single vote in 1996, her own, because even her husband didn’t vote that year.
Three Republican National Committee members automatically become delegates. The other 25 delegates are elected at-large by a few hundred party members at the state level. The precinct leaders at the bottom of this voter tree were selected two years ago, before the Trump candidacy took hold.
Some Trump campaign officials have referred to the delegates who have been fighting his candidacy as party insiders, but the Kansas delegates say that description doesn’t fit.
“They say, ‘you are a cigar-smoking insider,’ ” said Dave Bohnenblust, a delegate from McPherson. “Well, really I’m not. I got elected in a primary by some farmers and people who live out in the country.”
Trump rode a wave of discontent with party leaders who haven’t followed through on their election promises, according to most of the delegates. The delegates tend to have divided loyalties. They are people who volunteered or worked for and identify with Republican leaders. But at the same time, they are grassroots activists who have been disappointed with party leaders.
That’s why many supported Ted Cruz, a candidate who stood by his values in Washington, they said, yet also had a history of advocating conservative issues. But they are also party loyalists: Once Trump won the primary, Mike Todd, a delegate from Douglas County, said he removed his Cruz bumper sticker and put a Trump sticker in its place.
Lightner is one of the few delegates who has supported Trump since the start. He had to work to win over the Republicans on the state committee, in part by saying he would support Cruz if Cruz won. Lightner sent letters to all 340 state party members who would be voting for the 25 delegates and called everyone as well.
He knows that many of his fellow Olathe Republicans do not like Trump. “They can hold their nose and support Trump, and they should because if he becomes the nominee, we’ve got to stand by the nominee,” Lightner said. “Otherwise we’re spiraling into a very dangerous position.”
Kansas Republican Party rules dictate that delegates have to vote for the candidate they are assigned to. The only way delegates can change their vote is if a candidate releases them.
Ted Cruz won the majority of the delegates in Kansas during the caucus. But because he is speaking at the convention, even though he hasn’t endorsed Trump yet, many delegates said they expect that he will release them to vote for Trump.
Dalton Glasscock, a Wichita delegate, thinks delegates should be able to vote their conscience, which would effectively free them up to vote for someone other than Trump. “Honestly, I would have supported any other person except him,” Glassock said. “I think a lot of Americans are angry and a lot of the reasons they are angry are justified, but when was the last time you made a rational decision when you are angry?”
He wants the convention to be a real debate about the party, not just a coronation for Trump. “If we are solely sent to be a rubber stamp, I don’t know why we are spending the money,” Glassock said.
Glasscock, 21, said he will be the third-youngest delegate in the nation at the convention, and he thinks the party should focus on economic and foreign policy issues that resonate with millennials like him. The focus on social issues like immigration and gay marriage, which have been adopted by the party platform committee, will hurt the party in the long run, he says, and he plans to kick up a fuss.
Although Glasscock no longer agrees on many issues with Sarah Palin, whose speech at the 2008 convention inspired him to get into politics, he abides by her political spirit. “Regardless of what happens at the convention, I’m going rogue from what the party elites want,” Glasscock said. “I’m planning on going rogue at the convention because I think that’s a voice that needs to be heard.”
A group of national “Never Trump” Republicans tried to change the rules Thursday so that delegates could vote for whomever they wanted, rather than the candidate they were bound to in the primaries. But the measure received only 12 votes out of more than 100 of the rules committee delegates who arrived at the convention early, fewer than the 28 delegates needed to move forward.
Still, the Never Trump delegates have been e-mailing and calling Kansas delegates for weeks, even when the delegates asked them to stop. The Never Trump delegates have been arguing that delegates are legally allowed to vote however they want, regardless of what the rules committee says.
But most Kansas delegates said they would vote for Trump, even if he wasn’t their preferred candidate.
Trump “was probably my 17th choice out of the 17 candidates,” said Derek Kreifels, of Johnson County. “I’m not a huge fan, but I’ve accepted the fact that there is a process and that’s what people have voted for. I think he’s probably better than Hillary Clinton. I’m hoping that he’s better than Hillary Clinton.”
John Pyle, of Hays, said he’s preparing for the worst. “I think there is going to be a lot of turmoil at the convention,” Pyle said.
But at the end of the day, even Glasscock thinks “Hillary Clinton is a terrible choice for president and something all Republicans can unify behind.”