Pennsylvania GOP delegates would be at the center of any contested convention


It’s been 40 years since Republicans have gone to their convention without a clear nominee, but when they did, Pennsylvania was right at the heart of the struggle – because of the state’s unusual process of assigning delegates.

Pennsylvania’s primary contest is unlike others.

For years, the Keystone State primary has been a “preferential primary” – simply a beauty contest – and had no connection whatsoever to delegate selection.

It’s not winner-take-all. It’s not winner-take-most. It’s not even proportional.

The vast majority of Pennsylvania’s Republican delegates are technically “unbound” or “uncommitted.”

Used to be they all were, but this year party rules changed slightly, making 14 “at large” delegates bound to vote for the winner of the PA Primary, but on the first ballot only.

There are also three “automatic” delegate slots for the state party chairman (Rob Gleason), the National Committeeman (Bob Asher) and National Committeewoman (Christine Toretti).

The remaining 54 delegates, elected by Republican primary voters in each of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts (three per district) remain legally “uncommitted.”

They are not bound to vote for any particular candidate and are free to exercise their own judgment in selecting a nominee.

They may have their own preferences and loyalties, but they appear on the primary ballot without any indication of what those might be.

That means there is no guarantee – whatsoever – that the majority of Pennsylvania’s delegates will go with the winner of the Pennsylvania primary.

It has happened before.

“Pennsylvania’s huge bloc of uncommitted delegates would be pivotal in a contested convention. Pennsylvania would be in the center of every discussion and at the heart of every action,” said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg based media strategist.

Gerow had a front-row seat to the importance of Pennsylvania’s unique delegate set-up as a member of Ronald Reagan’s political team in the last contested GOP convention in 1976.

The 1976 primary race between Reagan and Gerald Ford was so close that Reagan chose Pennsylvania Senator Dick Schweiker as his running mate far in advance of the convention, believing it would help him siphon delegates from Ford.

But the delegates – all legally uncommitted – were effectively controlled by Drew Lewis, who held the delegation for Ford, according to Gerow.

“Four years later, Lewis devised and executed the strategy that won Reagan the majority of the delegates in that year’s Pennsylvania primary even though (Reagan) lost the primary to George H.W. Bush,” Gerow explained.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan lost the primary popular vote to Bush by about 100,000 votes, but he took the lion’s share of delegates because of the state’s unique rules – and thus won the only part of the primary that counts.

In short, Donald Trump could win the popular vote in Pennsylvania but lack the organizational infrastructure to fill a slate of delegates who support his candidacy. To date, Marco Rubio had the most impressive organization for getting supporting delegates on the ballot. The John Kasich campaign had been reaching out to people on the ballot even before Rubio dropped out.

Gerow has attended 10 consecutive conventions – more than any other Pennsylvanian Republican. He has been a delegate three times and is on the ballot again.

“I am currently undecided,” he said, having been an early supporter and national co-chair of Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign.

This story was first posted 1:32 p.m. Thursday, March 17