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Wisconsin Republicans are gearing up for what could be the first contested presidential nominating convention in 40 years, but what influence they wield could vary depending on what happens in the state’s April 5 primary.

State GOP party rules require Wisconsin’s delegates to stick with their designated candidate unless that candidate wins less than a third of the convention floor vote. In contrast, a majority of the delegates from other states will be able to switch candidates after the first ballot.

Still, with more than half of the total delegates already allocated, there will be a scramble for the remainder, including 42 from Wisconsin, which holds the biggest contest in a monthlong stretch after March 23.

“Wisconsin is in a position to affect the course of this race in some way, shape or form,” said Josh Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia who studies the primary calendar.

Three GOP candidates remain, with only real estate mogul Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz having a mathematically possible path to the nomination prior to the convention, though both would have to win more than 60 percent of the remaining delegates. Ohio Gov. John Kasich can’t win enough delegates prior to the convention, but vowed to campaign all the way to the convention floor after winning his home state Tuesday.

If no candidate reaches 1,237 delegates before the convention, there could be multiple rounds of voting, something that hasn’t happened at a Republican convention since 1948.

The last contested convention was in 1976, when both President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan were short of the nomination threshold entering the convention. Ford eventually won on the first ballot, but not before tense debate and political wrangling.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who attended the 1976 convention, recalled seeing fistfights on the convention floor and even one delegate hitting another over the head with a telephone.

“You hear about fights at these Trump rallies,” Thompson said. “There were fistfights galore during the Reagan/Ford convention.”

Thompson, who is backing Kasich, predicted this year’s convention will be equally if not more exciting than 1976. He noted if Kasich wins any delegates from Wisconsin, they could play a major role if Kasich doesn’t win one-third of the vote on the first ballot and they become free to switch candidates. Thompson declined to say what he would do if he were a delegate in such a situation.

“I don’t care where you are, if you’re committed or non-committed, whether as a delegate or spectator, you’re going to want to be in Cleveland,” Thompson said. “This is going to be a historical convention.”

Eighteen of Wisconsin’s GOP delegates will be selected by whichever campaign wins the most votes statewide. The state’s eight Congressional districts also each get three delegates, who are elected at local caucus meetings and pledged to the candidate with the most votes in that district on April 5.

Scott Grabins, Dane County GOP chairman, said he is among 15 Republicans vying to be a delegate in the 2nd Congressional District. Grabins said this year’s process has been “more intense than past primaries.”

“There are people who are supporting Cruz or Kasich and are very anti-Trump,” Grabins said. “There are Trump folks who are against the other candidates. It feels very natural for a primary. There are people who feel strongly both ways.”

If the convention is contested and the 2nd Congressional District winner gets less than a third of the first floor vote, Grabins said he’ll likely play it by ear as to what to do next. As a county party official, he has yet to commit to a specific candidate.

“I’ve already signed an affidavit saying I’ll abide by state rules,” Grabins said. “For my own purposes, that trumps anything that might happen.”

Both Kasich and Cruz supporters in Wisconsin said both candidates are beginning to establish a presence in the state, while the Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is planning three days of stops in the state over the next week and a half, according to Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville.

“Quite frankly I hope we don’t ever get there,” Stroebel said of a contested convention. “The beauty of Wisconsin (is) we’re going to be relevant in this race. … The more people that come out and vote, the better.”

On the Democratic side, prospects of a contested convention are far less likely as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is continuing to pull away from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, according to Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist who is uncommitted.

Maslin said Sanders could still win Wisconsin, which he’ll need to do if he wants to remain competitive until the end. But at this point Clinton has built a larger lead than Barack Obama had over her in 2008.

The state has 96 Democratic delegates, 57 of which are assigned proportionally in the eight Congressional districts and elected in caucuses held at the county level on April 17, and then at the district level on May 1.

Another 29 delegates, including 10 state and local elected officials, are selected at the state party convention on June 3 and assigned to candidates proportionally. And 10 so-called “super-delegates,” comprising members of Congress and party leaders, are not bound by the April 5 vote. So far four of them have said they’ll support Clinton.


Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.