Threats, passionate protests and accusations of theft were all on tap at Saturday's Tennessee Republican Party Executive Committee meeting, where Donald Trump backers protested what they said was an attempt to "steal" rightful delegates from the GOP front-runner.
At issue were the state's remaining 14 at-large delegates. From the results of the primary, which Trump won by 14 points, he was due to receive 7 delegates from the 14.
But the Trump campaign says five of the appointees slated to vote for Trump have loyalties “to vote for the establishment,” and if a contested convention goes to a third ballot – the round of voting in which Tennessee frees its delegates to vote for whomever they please – Trump could lose the backing of his own.
“I’ve been told two are truly Trump delegates and five are pretend delegates,” Trump Senior Adviser Barry Bennett told NBC News after the committee approved its slate of delegates on Saturday.Tennessee
Republican Party Executive Director Brent Leatherwood suggested the Trump's complaints were a sign of the candidate's struggles to lock down the nomination.
“If I’ve got a campaign fretting about that, then it’s a campaign that may understand it’s not going to be the nominee,” Leatherwood said.
“That’s the bigger story if they can’t get 1237 on the first ballot.”
And indeed, Bennett seemed to concede that the Trump campaign was preparing for such an outcome.
“We wanted [the Tennessee executive committee] to choose Trump delegates who we’d know would be with us through the [convention] floor fight,” he said Saturday.
“Cutting deals” over delegates
Darren Morris, Trump’s Tennessee state director, met earlier this week with Tennessee GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes to lay out the Trump campaign’s preferred slate of delegates. Morris told The Tennessean newspaper that Haynes agreed to appoint all seven of them.
When the slate included only a handful of their preferred delegates, the Trump campaign cried foul, with Trump Senior Adviser Dan Scavino charging that "a small group of Tennessee establishment insiders" were trying to "steal" votes from Trump supporters.
"They want to appoint people who support Jeb Bush, John Kasich and others to represent the delegate slots that Donald Trump won on March 1 FAIR AND SQUARE," he tweeted.
Haynes said he made no such promise to the Trump campaign — "I'm not in the business of cutting deals."
He said the Tennessee GOP bylaws only require that the executive committee take into consideration the campaigns' proposed delegates, but ultimately they have final say over the 14 at-large delegates.
"What we try and do is we also try and recognize individuals that have done exemplary work for candidates, or dedicated a lot of their time and energy to pushing back on liberal policies. We try to make sure they get an opportunity to go to Cleveland and participate in the party process," Haynes said.
Haynes noted that the delegates proposed by the executive committee are voted on as a full slate, and so the committee must take into account whether the slate can pass. He pointed to one of Trump's proposed delegates — Mark Winslow, who sued the Tennessee Republican Party three years ago — as an example of a delegate who wouldn't pass muster with the full committee.
Acts of “intimidation” from the Trump campaign
But Scavino's tweet, and a warning sent out by Morris on Friday night, activated an impassioned network of Trump supporters in Tennessee, many of whom showed up to the meeting bearing signs pledging their support for Trump. Videos tweeted from inside the gathering showed an at times contentious meeting, with members shouting over one another.
The Tennessee GOP hired extra security for the meeting because of a number of threats sent by Trump supporters on social media. And Haynes said his cell phone was flooded with calls from angry Trump supporters, to the point that he now has to get a new phone.
He suggested the act was one of "intimidation.""That's not something we would do to any of our campaigns. We're not in the business of trying to harass or intimidate anyone here at the Tennessee Republican Party — we're in the process of putting forward solutions to our nation's problems," Haynes said.
The Trump campaign dismissed those charges, with Trump Senior Adviser Barry Bennett saying the backlash should come as no surprise."
They changed the slate last-minute — they shouldn't be surprised that the public's angry," he said.
But Trump himself indicated he was happy with at least one of the delegates he was appointed at the state executive committee meeting on Saturday. HE tweeted out his satisfaction with the appointment of Tennessee’s national committeeman — and an RNC official — to his slate.
Trump campaign's delegate struggles
Still, the controversy highlighted a broader issue within the Trump campaign — its struggles to understand and operate within the sometimes arcane rules that govern delegate allocation at the state level. Those struggles have set him back in the delegate fight in Louisiana and potentially Colorado.
That’s become hugely important for the remaining campaigns as it’s become increasingly likely that the GOP primary will head to a brokered convention, where delegates will engage in multiple rounds of balloting until a candidate can cobble together a majority.
If Trump is unable to win the nomination outright on the first round of voting, many of his and other candidates’ delegates will be released and can vote for whomever they please. With that in mind, each of the candidates are jockeying to get their loyalists elected at the state level as delegates to the national convention.
In Tennessee, delegates are bound on the first two rounds of voting, and then set free. But Bennett said the Trump campaign is also concerned about ensuring Trump supporters get appointed to a handful of key committees that decide the rules governing how a candidate qualifies for the nomination.
"Some of the establishment guys who were on the ballot as delegates for Rubio and [Jeb] Bush — now they suddenly are Trump delegates or Cruz delegates, and so they could potentially change the rules so an establishment guy can get nominated," he said.