Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hinted last week that he was trying to stop Donald Trump from winning the GOP nomination. And over the weekend, McConnell put himself in position to help accomplish that goal.
At a meeting in Lexington on Saturday, Kentucky Republicans selected 25 delegates to the national convention. And not only did McConnell successfully get himself elected to be a delegate, but many of the other 24 are close to the senator.
Scott Jennings ran an outside group that spent millions to back the senator’s 2014 re-election campaign, Janet Cuthrell used to serve on his staff, and several other delegates were or are top officials with the Republican Party of Kentucky, which McConnell works closely with.
In fact, the delegate slate is full of powerful figures in Kentucky’s Republican establishment: Gov. Matt Bevin, Bevin’s wife Glenna, U.S. Senator Rand Paul, and several people who served on Bevin’s transition team or now work in his administration.
Bevin first emerged as an insurgent against the party leadership and McConnell, running against the longtime senator in a 2014 primary. But Bevin, who was elected governor last year, delivered a speech on Saturday that was widely viewed as anti-Trump, even if he did not use the real estate mogul’s name.
“People who will constantly give you what itching ears want to hear for the sake of getting in that moment what they want from that individual at that time, this is not what the greatness of America was built on,” Bevin said, according to the Kentucky politics website Pure Politics.
“When we talk about the greatness of America, I will tell you, while there are many who would tell us otherwise, America is great,” he added.
Paul had memorable clashes with Trump during the GOP primary debates and is also unlikely to back the real estate mogul if he has other options.
Kentucky has 46 delegates overall. Trump won the state’s March caucuses with 36 percent of the vote, compared to 32 percent for Ted Cruz. According to Kentucky GOP rules, the delegates are bound proportionately for the first ballot, meaning Trump has 17 delegates, Cruz 15, Marco Rubio 7, and John Kasich 7.
But the Kentucky delegates are unbound after that. And Kentucky Republicans say that most of the 25 delegates picked on Saturday, as well as many of the remaining 21 delegates (3 picked by party officials in each congressional district and 3 RNC members) were targeted to serve at the convention because they are likely to be opposed to Trump. McConnell allies, according to sources, were heavily involved in getting people to run for convention slots.
Neither McConnell nor Bevin nor Paul has officially endorsed Cruz or said they oppose Trump. But McConnell, in an interview last week, said that he was “increasingly optimistic” that the vote at the July RNC would go to a second ballot.
Trump is the only candidate likely to be able to win 1,237 delegates on the first ballot, so McConnell’s remark was widely interpreted as the senator suggesting that he favors another candidate to win in further balloting.
Jennings, in an interview, would not say if he and other delegates from Kentucky would break from Trump a second ballot.
"I'm open," he said. "I"m unaffiliated and unbound on the second ballot.'