The biggest GOP showdown in California this month might not be the second presidential primary debate, scheduled to be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Instead, it looks as if it will take place behind the scenes at the state Republican Party’s convention days later, as allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump signal they are preparing to fight over the state party’s new delegate rules — a battle with major implications for the important Super Tuesday contest.
California is a significant prize in the presidential primaries, with more delegates than any other state. Previously, California Republicans used to assign delegates by congressional district. In other words, candidates could more easily target certain areas of the large and expensive state rather than fight over the statewide vote.
But in late July, the party wrote a new rule to change the way it operates, making the transition to a potential winner-take-all state. So as things stand for the 2024 race, whoever wins more than 50% of the statewide vote will get all the delegates. Should no one hit that threshold, delegates will be allocated proportionally.
DeSantis allies blasted the change, which the Trump campaign supported. Delegates were previously awarded to the top two finishers in each congressional district, which would have allowed DeSantis, the second-highest-polling contender in the GOP primary, to obtain a large delegate haul. Those rules also would have encouraged DeSantis allies to spend more liberally in specific congressional districts where it felt the GOP electorates were more receptive to his candidacy.
When Never Back Down, the super PAC backing DeSantis’ presidential bid, ended its door-knocking operations in the state last month, the group pointed to the rule change as a leading factor in its decision, NBC News first reported.
Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for the super PAC, described the change at the time as “making grassroots involvement impossible” and called it a “Trump-inspired rigging,” though she expressed hope that the rule could be altered this month at the convention — which features both DeSantis and Trump as scheduled speakers.
What’s more, a Trump campaign adviser took note of Perrine’s comments, seeing them as proof that DeSantis’ allies would be working hard behind the scenes to change the decision.
“If I were going to try and do that, I sure as hell wouldn’t telegraph it,” this person said of an effort to lobby the delegates to amend the new rule. “Because she said that, I’m going be ready for it. And the president can be ready for it, because he’s going to be there.”
No one from the DeSantis-aligned super PAC or campaign said they were actively working on lobbying delegates.
The Trump adviser noted, though, that it would be a big lift for DeSantis’ allies to get the rule changed. Jessica Millan Patterson, the chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said a change at this point would require an amendment to pass through the rules committee, in addition to winning the support of a majority of the state party’s delegation. Without support from the rules committee, two-thirds of the state party convention delegation would have to back any change — which is in excess of 1,400 members.
Patterson said the new rule wasn’t about boosting Trump but about getting in compliance with the Republican National Committee’s rules on allocating delegates and creating an environment in which more of the party’s primary candidates believe it is worthwhile to campaign there — viewing the chance of winning some delegates in a proportional, statewide system as more appealing than in the previous setup, in which contenders had to finish among the top two candidates in individual congressional districts to leave the state with convention delegates.
“We saw right away, as soon as we made this rule change, multiple candidates saying, ‘We want to be at your convention,’” Patterson said. “They are now playing in California. The ability to walk away from a Super Tuesday with a percentage of the delegates is really exciting for a lot of these candidates.”
Complaints about the new system, she said, were limited to “really one camp.”
“Certainly, when you’re in that first or second spot and you would be walking away with some delegates, I get it,” she said. “But our job is to make sure that this is a fair process for all of the candidates that are entering this race.”
DeSantis’ campaign declined to comment, as did representatives for other major GOP presidential campaigns.
Delegate rules will be finalized on the last day of the convention — Oct. 1, which also happens to be the deadline to file any changes with the RNC, Patterson said.
The convention is set to be well-attended by GOP primary candidates. In addition to Trump and DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy will speak, and Patterson hinted at more announcements in the coming days.
“There is no playing favorites in this whole process,” she said. “And as you can see by the candidates who are coming to our convention who are not named Donald Trump, they feel like this is an opportunity for them, too.”
Yet a recent survey by the University of California-Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times showed how the new rules might be very beneficial to Trump. The poll found that Trump is on track to win all of the state’s massive delegate haul — the largest in the country — under the new rule, as 55% of likely GOP voters in the state planned to cast ballots for him. Just 16% backed DeSantis.
It’s a huge reversal from a February survey by the same pollster, which found DeSantis leading Trump by 8 points.
Ahead of his campaign, DeSantis’ allies signaled that part of their strategy was to pay attention early to states that will vote in March and later, in hope of building up delegates to outlast Trump in the long run.
The Trump campaign adviser described DeSantis’ effort as “the participation trophy strategy.”
California isn’t the only place where such a battle is underway. In Nevada, a critical early voting state, two campaigns lodged accusations that the contentious process is being driven by an effort to benefit Trump, NBC News reported last week. The Trump campaign and the state GOP chair forcefully pushed back against the accusation, with the former saying it amounted to an excuse for DeSantis’ underperforming.
Back in California, Patterson is preparing for a convention that was already certain to be livelier than gatherings in recent years.
“This puts us in a unique position where candidates are working really hard, not just for a fundraiser in California, because we’re used to that, but to really earn our votes,” she said. “And that’s exciting.”