Never mind Donald Trump’s protests. Cleveland could be a deal-maker’s paradise

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges supporters last week while leaving Trump Tower in New York. AP/Julio Cortez

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges supporters last week while leaving Trump Tower in New York. AP/Julio Cortez

The beachhead for this summer’s Republican National Convention is a set of offices on the edge of Cleveland’s downtown theater district — near a building that bears the name of Hanna.

As in “Dollar” Mark Hanna, the late 19th century’s poster child for political powerbrokers. Hanna is the Republican strategist whose many stogies put the smoke in those legendary smoke-filled rooms.

Over four days in July, the famed fixer’s spirit is likely to stalk Quicken Loans Arena and the GOP delegates who gather within. Minus, the smoldering cigar, of course. “The Q” is a smoke-free edifice.

With his status as the front-runner in the GOP slog toward the presidency in jeopardy, Donald Trump has stepped up his already blistering attacks against the behind-the-scenes insiders allegedly working against him.

Mark Hanna/Library of Congress

Mark Hanna/Library of Congress

“The Republican National Committee — they should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this kind of crap to happen,” he told his fellow New Yorkers this week, after watching Ted Cruz snake away all 30 of Colorado’s delegates.

In a contest already saturated with irony, this may be the mother lode. For it’s becoming increasingly likely that, come June and July, Trump will be lighting candles to summon Mark Hanna’s deal-making ghost to his side.

And Cruz will be doing the same.

Last week, a Washington Post analysis concluded that the Cruz campaign’s state-by-state effort to infiltrate the ranks of national delegates won by Trump in primaries appears to have succeeded. Enough faux Trump delegates – prepared to bail on the billionaire as soon as the rules allow – will populate the Cleveland arena to ensure that Trump’s clout will shrink after the first ballot.

If that’s the case, Trump’s best hope of securing the GOP nomination for president is to arrive on Trump Force One with the necessary 1,237 first-round, pledged delegate votes already in hand. He now has 742.

Even with a smashing victory in his native New York on Tuesday, as polls predict, that number will be hard to arrive at via the state-by-state contests that remain. Last week, Atlanta attorney Randy Evans, a member of the RNC and its rules committee, made news on MSNBC when he said – not for the first time – that if Trump reaches the 1,100-delegate mark, he might be safe.

He might be able to cobble together the remaining delegates on his own. But if the billionaire finishes below the 1,100-delegate mark, Evans said, Trump will need to cut a deal. Well out of sight of people like you and me.

Possibly with John Kasich. The governor of Ohio has refused to leave the presidential contest, and controls 143 delegates. But there’s the senator from Florida, too.

“Marco Rubio’s clearly made a move in that direction,” Evans said this week on GPB’s “Political Rewind.” Even though he has suspended his presidential ambitions, Rubio recently sent a letter to state parties demanding that 172 delegates he won before quitting remain bound to him.

Not only former or current presidential candidates need apply. A party chairman from a large state – say Florida, California, or Texas – who holds sway over his delegates would be eligible to play king-maker, too.

The prize could be the vice-presidential slot. Or the right to name who fills it. Or a cabinet position. But this is where things gets tricky. Because Trump wouldn’t be the only one making offers. A certain U.S. senator from Texas would be doing the same.

“Cruz, who has made a reputation for not compromising and not getting along with anybody — his only hope for success is to compromise and get along,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist from Jackson, Miss. “And Trump is going to have to prove that a guy who brags about being a deal-maker, can make deals.”

Stevens may be the Republican party’s reigning expert on contested conventions. Not because he’s seen one. Very few of us are old enough to remember when political conventions were something other than extended TV commercials.

Stevens is the expert because he’s plotted out a contested convention. In a novel. “The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear” will be brought out by the fine people at Knopf Doubleday in June.

Stevens began it several years ago, then shelved it to work for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. The book features a Trump-like populist running on an anti-immigration platform – but a governor of Colorado rather than a billionaire outsider.

He described it as a “dark, comic novel.” But Stevens fears that his work may suffer the same fate as those political skits on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” The real-life farce has become far more hypnotizing than an art-house imitation.

“I thought I was pushing the envelope,” the political wonk-turned-author said. “As it turns out, it’s probably understated.”

Deal-making for the Republican presidential contest is likely to begin in earnest after the California primary on June 7, when a monumental 172 bound delegates will be in play.

A key focus, Stevens said, will be on a potential nominee’s ability to deliver on what he promises. National polls gauging the strength of Cruz and Trump against their likely Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, will take on even greater importance. And right now, Clinton holds a nearly double-digit advantage over Trump.

In national polls, Cruz is losing to Clinton by an average of 3.4 percent, according to RealClear Politics.

“That becomes the greatest delegate hunter for non-Trump forces,” Stevens said. “Because you’re really not talking about Donald Trump. You’re talking about [control of] the U.S. Senate.

“If it’s July, and Trump is losing by double digits, what’s your argument? Come join me and let’s jump over the cliff together?” Stevens asked.

Polls may not be the only obstacle to deal-making in Cleveland. This week, news surfaced of an 1874 Ohio statute that defines bribery as the intent to “give, lend, offer, or procure … money, office, position, place or employment, influence, or any other valuable consideration” to delegates at a political convention.

The statute, of course, was in force during Mark Hanna’s day. But there’s little evidence that it slowed him down.

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