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Key Convention Players in Dark About Anti-Trump Efforts

The newly-created group trying to thwart Donald Trump from capturing the Republican nomination has yet to establish contact with many of the key individuals needed to make that effort a reality.
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Cleveland Cavaliers fans gather outside of The Quicken Loans Arena before Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors on June 19, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The series is tied at 3-3, and a Cavaliers victory will bring a professional sports championship to the city of Cleveland for the first time since 1964.(Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)Angelo Merendino / Getty Images

One month away from the GOP convention in Cleveland, the newly-created group trying to thwart Donald Trump from capturing the Republican nomination has yet to establish contact with many of the key individuals needed to make that effort a reality.

“I have not received any calls from the 'Never Trump' or 'Free the Delegates' groups to persuade me for this,” David Wheeler, one of South Dakota’s two delegates on the convention rules committee, told NBC News on Monday.

The “Free the Delegates” group, launched by several delegates and Republican activists, is hoping to upend Trump by persuading 57 of the 112 rules committee members in Cleveland to ultimately unbind delegates from having to vote for Trump on the convention floor.

“Trump was not my preferred candidate, but I'm bound to him by state rules because he won our primary,” Wheeler added, suggesting, at this time, any rules change to this effect would “cause too much disruption” and the party has “to live with” its choice of Trump.

Rules committee members like Wheeler, who did not vote for Trump in his state’s primary, are the very targets that the group must persuade to change the convention rules. Backers of the movement suggest delegates are not constitutionally bound to vote a certain way at the convention despite state statutes or state party rules that say otherwise.

But the group has not widely delivered its message to key players despite holding a conference call on Sunday night for supporters.

Judi Schwalbach, a Kasich loyalist out of Michigan who will also sit on the convention rules committee, has not been invited to join any stop-Trump phone calls, and like Wheeler, has yet to be persuaded that upending Trump would be fair.

“I don’t want to see Donald Trump be the nominee,” Schwalbach said. “But I just don’t see that as fair play. And perception is reality. It would be perceived that Mr. Trump is not getting fair play if the rules are changed.”

Steve Lonegan, a former U.S. Senate candidate and Cruz campaign surrogate, is helping lead the group’s charge and told NBC News on Monday that the group will expand its outreach: “We are reaching out – by the end of this week, we want to have reached every state.”

But Lonegan also acknowledged the group has not even identified everyone on the rules committee.

“I don't even know -- we know who some of them are, but I'm trying to just find out who they are in New Jersey,” Lonegan said, referring to his home state.

The RNC has not provided a public list of the rules members despite requests by NBC News. Lonegan suggested the system is now “rigged” for Trump because of the lack of access to a public list of rules members.

Of those contacted thus far, Lonegan asserted that “over ten” rules committee members have committed to voting to free the delegates. Two other individuals affiliated with the group told NBC News last week that “nine or 10” members had agreed.

Rick Shaftan, who heads the super PAC, Courageous Conservative, backing the group’s effort, told NBC News it intends to target rules committee members in their home states by running advertisements — on radio, Facebook and in robocalls— encouraging voters to call the two rules committee members in their state and telling them to unbind the delegates.

“The Trump campaign wants to harass people? It can go two ways,” Shaftan said. “We can put pressure on delegates. We won’t threaten their lives, but we can put their names out and tell people to call them up to release the delegates.”

One rules member willing to unbind the delegates is Linda Brickman, a Ted Cruz loyalist in Arizona, who told NBC News on Friday that she is not opposed, as of now, to making voting on the convention floor wide open.

But Brickman said she also has not been in contact with anyone from the “Free the Delegates” initiative nor a part of its organizing calls.

"At this point in time, I’d vote my conscious,” Brickman said.

Brickman suggested she has not “seen anything that has proven” she and other delegates are required to vote for Trump – despite an Arizona state statute that says the state’s 58 delegates must vote for the winner – in this case, Trump – at the convention.

Brickman said she is in touch with constitutional lawyers about whether delegates have the constitutional prerogative to vote their desire because political parties are independent entities of the government and not bound to laws.

“If it turns out that constitutionally we can go anyway we want and we can go with our conscience and are not bound, I will go to Cruz,” Brickman said, noting Cruz would then need to put himself up at the convention as an alternative candidate to Trump.

To change the rules, there is then a second layer of approval -- the entire national delegation by a majority vote. And the delegate counting that became prominent at state conventions this spring as Cruz’s campaign prepared for a contested convention would, again, take center stage.

But Constantin Querard, who led delegate wrangling operations for Cruz in Arizona, told NBC News on Sunday that he had also not been looped into the group, though his state’s delegation would likely be fundamental to stopping Trump.

Before Cruz dropped from the race, his team had secured more than 40 of the 58 Arizona delegates with Cruz-backing delegates despite Trump beating Cruz by 22 percent in the state.