Imagine this: Donald Trump wooing delegates with rides on his gold-accoutered private jet. A wealthy Ted Cruz supporter wining and dining them at the Cleveland convention. Welcome bags stocked with expensive swag awaiting party activists in their hotel rooms, courtesy of a well-funded super PAC.
The already freewheeling Republican presidential contest is fast turning into a personal persuasion game as the candidates pursue no-holds-barred efforts to lock up delegates — and there are relatively few limits on how far they can go.
The jockeying has already led to accusations of unfair play. Trump has accused Cruz of luring delegates with unspecified “goodies” and “crooked shenanigans,” charges that the Cruz campaign dismissed as “falsehoods.”
Under regulations established in the 1980s, delegates cannot take money from corporations, labor unions, federal contractors or foreign nationals. But an individual donor is permitted to give a delegate unlimited sums to support his or her efforts to get selected to go to the convention, including money to defray the costs of travel and lodging.
A candidate’s campaign committee can also pay for delegate expenses. Some legal experts believe a campaign could even cover an all-expenses-paid weekend prior to the convention to meet with senior staff at, say, a Trump-owned luxury golf resort in Florida.
Given that the last contested Republican convention was 40 years ago — Gerald Ford vs. Ronald Reagan in 1976 — many of Washington’s top campaign finance experts are furiously paging through old Federal Election Commission opinions, trying to discern what delegates can accept.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Kenneth Gross, a former associate general counsel at the FEC. “And when you get into the heat of battle and the stakes are as high as they possibly can be in terms of who will be the nominee, people are going to push the envelope.”
Trump and Cruz, who have shown their relentlessness in this season’s rough-and-tumble campaign, are expected to look for every legal edge possible if neither is able to secure 1,237 delegates before the July convention. Also in the mix is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who forged an alliance with Trump on Saturday in a delegate fight in Michigan.
The candidates “will be in a bidding war for delegates,” said Brett Kappel, a veteran campaign finance lawyer who has represented Democrats and Republicans. “They’ll live like kings at the convention.”
The FEC delegate rules were established long before super PACs came on the scene and offer little guidance about how such groups can lobby delegates. One possibility floated by strategists in recent days: a super-PAC-
financed war room that collects reams of personal data — political background, hobbies, family details — that can be used to target the nearly 200 activists and elected officials who are not bound to a specific candidate.
The lack of clear guardrails has left party activists feeling unsettled.
“It’s almost like we need a campaign finance system for delegates,” said Gregory Carlson, 27, who ran unsuccessfully to be a delegate in Colorado over the weekend. “This is why we need to put serious thought into this and who are immune to being paid off with below-board messages.”
Since most delegates are expected to cover their own travel and stay in Cleveland, they could be offered thousands of dollars in assistance. Just how far those payments can go has not been tested.
“If they decide to go to Cleveland via Cabo, that might be a problem,” said Anthony Herman, a former FEC general counsel.
But it’s unclear that such a perk would be made public if it were provided by a single donor. Under FEC rules, a contribution from an individual to a delegate does not have to be disclosed, as long as it was not made in coordination with a campaign or as an independent effort to boost a candidate. That means gifts could flow to delegates unseen.
“Beyond subsistence expenses, in the weeks ahead, are there cash and items of value given to these delegates?” asked Michael Toner, a Republican election-law attorney. “Is someone going to show up in the Cayman Islands in January with a three-week paid trip? That’s not going to be readily apparent before the election.”
Still, Toner added, “I think the vast majority of the deals are going to be political deals. People want attention, a seat at the table.”
That was the case in 1976, when Ford leveraged the prestige and trappings of the presidency to try to bring uncommitted delegates over to his side. He invited entire state delegations to lunch and dinner at the White House and even hosted a group on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal to watch the July 4 bicentennial celebration in New York Harbor, according to Jules Witcover’s 1977 book “Marathon.”
Reagan tried to match him with his Hollywood connections, recruiting entertainers such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Pat Boone to call wavering delegates.
“It was hand-to-hand combat,” said Reagan biographer Craig Shirley, who detailed the fight in his book “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All.” “When it comes to getting delegates, it is the wild, wild West. Anything goes.”
Well, not absolutely anything. State and federal anti-bribery laws would probably forbid delegates to sell their votes outright, although it is unclear how those statutes apply to those who are private citizens rather than elected officials. Election-law attorneys noted that the Justice Department has recently stepped up its focus on campaign finance violations and could scrutinize suspicious transactions.
And most experts doubt there will be systematic efforts to try to win over delegates with cash.
“I think it’s a pretty dangerous game to play,” Herman said. “The optics are just so bad. Putting aside FEC exposure or even criminal exposure, I think the political exposure if it were disclosed and the public knew about it — it would just seem so unseemly.”
The campaigns declined to offer specifics on how they plan to woo delegates.
“Well, there’s the law, and then there’s ethics, and then there’s getting votes,” Trump convention manager Paul Manafort said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I’m not going to get into what tactics are used. I happen to think the best way we’re going to get delegates is to have Donald Trump be exposed to delegates, let the delegates hear what he says.”
Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said the senator from Texas has been “building an organization that will allow us to secure the delegates we need to win should this race be determined at convention.”
Several delegates interviewed this week said they would not be swayed by inducements. They were exasperated by the suggestion that their support could be bought with money or gifts.
Wendy Day — a 43-year-old mother of four in Michigan who was elected to be a delegate for Cruz — said her delegation is looking for ways to keep their convention expenses down, perhaps by renting homes outside the city, so they will not have to depend on a benefactor to cover their expenses.
“We wouldn’t want to feel like we were being bought off,” she said, adding: “I don’t think Cruz supporters would be swayed by gifts and money. We are in this to save our country.”
Joy Hoffman, chairwoman of the Republican Party in Arapahoe County, Colo., said she would view any kind of monetary gift or offer to pay for expenses as a bribe.
The candidates can “call me and talk to me,” said Hoffman, who will be an unpledged alternate delegate to the convention. But she warned that she will not be easily dazzled.
“I already know these people,” Hoffman said. “They’ve been bugging me for months. I had breakfast with Kasich not long ago, and I’ve had conversations with the Trumps. At the end of the day, that’s nice. They put their pants on the same way, they eat the same kind of food we eat.”
O’Keefe reported from Colorado Springs. David Weigel in Rochester, N.Y., and Katie Zezima in Irvine, Calif., contributed to this report.