Curly Haugland loves the rules. The stubborn 69-year-old pool-supply magnate is North Dakota’s top Republican gadfly, its rule-mongering crank, its official state pain in the ass. On the national GOP’s standing rules committee, he’s been the pedantic curmudgeon, the stubborn speed bump who for years has raised points of order only to watch establishment Republicans stampede over him.
Yet now, as his party teeters on the edge of civil war, Haugland has become one of the most dangerous men in politics: He’s the mainstream GOP’s last hope to deny Donald Trump the Republican nomination in Cleveland. It would take a miracle—and almost certainly lead to a historic split in the party—but there is still a way, buried in the labyrinthine rulebook, that the party could free delegates from their obligation to vote for Trump. To get there, the convention’s rules committee would need to travel a perilous road. But nobody knows the terrain better than Haugland, a self-taught maverick expert on the Republican convention rules, who has spent a decade pushing schemes to take power away from Republican primary voters and give it back to party insiders.
There is one article of faith in the Republican Party: On the convention’s first ballot, bound delegates are required to vote for the candidate to whom they’re bound. What you need to know about Haugland’s radical vision is this: He insists that’s not the case. Haugland has been trumpeting this nuclear option for months. In March, he blasted out a letter to fellow Republican National Committee members with the subject line: “NEWS FLASH: All Republican Delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention are Unbound!” He’s on a mission to let all the delegates at the convention in Cleveland to vote however they’d like on the first ballot, no matter whom their state’s voters chose.
This has long seemed like a crazy cause—who doesn’t want voters to decide? Back when Haugland was advocating the party assert its independence from a sitting Republican president, George W. Bush, Curlyism was viewed as a kind of benign, obscure heresy.
But could this be the year Haugland’s strange view of the primary—that the party, not voters, chooses the nominee, as he often insists—finds its moment? In April, Eric O’Keefe, a Cruz supporter and Club for Growth activist, told the Wall Street Journal that he would lobby Republican delegates to assert their right to reject Trump at the convention. (O’Keefe did not return an email seeking comment.) Trump’s old pal Roger Stone has predicted for months that the Republican establishment would try to snatch the nomination from Trump at the convention, even if he won a pledged-delegate majority. Now that Trump’s opposition has dropped out, “the whole scenario is far, far less likely,” Stone says—but, he admits, it could still happen. “The Republican convention can do whatever it wants,” he says. “You can’t bring a lawsuit. There’s no jurisdiction.”
Now, as #NeverTrump conservatives begin to turn their attention to the possibility of a third-party candidate, it’s clear many GOP leaders are still deeply opposed to Trump as the nominee. The question is: How unhappy are they? And how far are they willing to go to stop him on the floor in Cleveland? Haugland knows the weird contours, obscure clauses and contradictory history of the party’s governing rules—so he knows the last, desperate hand the #NeverTrump crowd could play. He says he’s not taking sides in the presidential race—and, oddly enough, he even praises Trump. Still, now that Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, all that stands in the way of the Trump Train is the idea Haugland champions: that the party can rewrite the convention rules to undo the voters’ choice.
As amusing as this would be to see Three Stooges style physical violence on the GOP convention floor instigated by the machinations of a man named Curly, there's a real problem with the people Trump will have at the convention in the form of some of his more...odious...delegates.
On Monday evening, California's secretary of state published a list of delegates chosen by the Trump campaign for the upcoming Republican presidential primary in the state. Trump's slate includes William Johnson, one of the country's most prominent white nationalists.
Johnson applied to the Trump campaign to be a delegate. He was accepted on Monday. In order to be approved he had to sign this pledge sent to him by the campaign: "I, William Johnson, endorse Donald J. Trump for the office of President of the United States. I pledge to cast ALL of my ballots to elect Donald J. Trump on every round of balloting at the 2016 Republican National Convention so that we can MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!" After he signed, the Trump campaign added his name to the list of 169 delegates it forwarded to the secretary of state.
Johnson leads the American Freedom Party, a group that "exists to represent the political interests of White Americans" and aims to preserve "the customs and heritage of the European American people." The AFP has never elected a candidate of its own and possesses at most a few thousand members, but it is "arguably the most important white nationalist group in the country," according to Mark Potok, a senior fellow for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups.
Johnson got the news that he had been selected by Trump in a congratulatory email sent to him by the campaign's California Delegate Coordinator, Katie Lagomarsino. "I just hope to show how I can be mainstream and have these views," Johnson tells Mother Jones. "I can be a white nationalist and be a strong supporter of Donald Trump and be a good example to everybody."
And guess what, Republican party?
You own this.