With three Republican presidential candidates still fighting for the nomination, conservative activists say they have unusual leverage to get their priorities inserted into the party platform.
The continuing fight for delegates among businessman Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Ohio Governor John Kasich means there's less likelihood the candidates will push back against their proposals, conservatives say.
Some party activists say they've been stymied for years from making a strong imprint on the Republican national platform, the framework document that spells out core principles, by candidates who are concerned about opening debates over contentious issues.
It will be “one of the most significant platforms we will ever have to draft,” said Sandy McDade, a Louisiana delegate for Cruz who will also serve on the platform committee. “We have a very good chance of Republicans taking the White House and it's important the public understand what we stand for on issues like gay marriage and abortion,” she said.
Without a presumptive nominee to send operatives to squelch planks that might conflict with that candidate's agenda, there may be a free-for-all.
Ryan Williams, Mitt Romney's former press secretary, said it was “a big fight” to keep items they considered embarrassing or distracting off the party platform during the 2012 convention when Romney was the nominee. Aides sat on the sidelines quickly reading through every proposal, and if the language seemed like it would be trouble for Romney to defend in his general-election fight against President Barack Obama, his whips quietly fanned out to ask their supporters to vote against them.
Among the proposals Romney's team swatted away were getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education, a declaration that fetuses are human beings from the the moment of conception, and a rebuke of the United Nations, aides said.
For some activists frustrated with their inability to bring about change on the floor of the U.S. House and Senate, platform changes are a crucial outlet. McDade compared the importance of the 2016 convention to the 1972 presidential election, the first one following the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling that state laws banning abortions are unconstitutional. The ruling meant “open season on unborn children, but didn't mean we stopped fighting for life,” McDade said. “Likewise, this is our chance to stand up for traditional marriage. It's an issue we have to protect.”
Some religious conservative leaders hope to simply preserve the planks, especially those on marriage and abortion, that already exist in the platform, and likely won’t propose amendments.
Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly hopes the convention readopts the 2012 platform.
“I'm satisfied with it and I have no plans to try to change it,” she said.
Schlafly, an anti-feminist icon, said she handed Trump a copy of the current platform after he announced his candidacy. “I asked him if he would support it and he said, ‘Yes,’ and so I knew I could endorse him,” said Schlafly, who hopes to serve on the platform committee again this year.
Tony Perkins, who is president of the socially conservative Family Research Council and will serve on the platform committee, also said that he doesn't expect the document to change much.
“Here's the problem for Republicans: If they retreat on their stand for traditional values, that creates a complex problem in a general election,” Perkins said. “It says they've embraced a liberal view of social values that will result with what happened in 2012 and 2008: values voters will stay home.”
Asked on NBC on Thursday whether he would want to change the GOP platform to have abortion exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother, Trump said, “Yes I would, absolutely, for the three exceptions,” drawing a rebuke from the anti-abortion group March for Life.
On economic issues, conservative activists could push to include more stringent language to audit the Federal Reserve. Both Cruz and Trump have said publicly that they support an audit, which was included in the 2012 platform. But some are hoping the language will go even further. “Both of the leading Republican candidates are on record supporting” an audit, said Norm Singleton, president of the Campaign for Liberty, which was founded by 2012 presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Another contentious issue that Singleton said could come up: language to dismantle the Export-Import Bank, a federally financed bank that conservatives like Cruz have sought to portray as the face of Washington “cronyism.” Its re-authorization became a political piñata this past year and divided Tea Party conservatives against the Republican business community. “It's about time that Republicans and conservatives make ending all sort of crony programs—including Ex-Im—a key part of their platform,” said Veronique de Rugy, a senior fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center.
“We are looking at ways to influence the platform process on the economic agenda,” said David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which opposes Ex-Im. “Bold tax reform, regulatory relief and eliminating cronyism—the face of which is Ex-Im—are issues we'll be advocating.”
States Show the Way
While much attention has been focused on state conventions' elections of delegates, many state Republicans are also drafting their own party platforms. In some states, local Republicans draft county platforms that are then taken to the state level, with the hopes of some of their planks influencing the national party's platform.
In North Dakota, Republicans voted to include a message about “abstinence education” that would “encourage young men and women to abstain from sexual activity until marriage.” They also advocate for schools to teach religious-based theories about creation. And in Laramie County, Wyoming, local Republicans included a plank calling for Congress to reinstate “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” because “social engineering and social experimentation have no proper place in the military.”
The Colorado GOP’s recently passed state party platform includes a vaccination plank, calling for the “sovereignty of parents to dictate all medical decisions of their children free from government coercion, particularly in the administration of vaccinations.” Another plank calls for imposing term limits on members of Congress.
Expect some esoteric planks, tossed in with those with more broad support, said Tennessee U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn. This presidential election has drawn in new voters, and it’s important to entertain their ideas “and keep those people interested,” said Blackburn, who was co-chair of the platform committee last cycle.
“I think this is going to be healthy,” she said.
—With assistance from Sahil Kapur and Ben Brody.