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With prospect of divided convention, unbound Pa. delegates have shot at deciding nominee

| Saturday, April 2, 2016, 10:10 p.m.

Note to Pennsylvania Republicans: Your vote for a presidential candidate in the April 26 primary election might not matter.

Under party rules adopted last year, the 54 delegates elected from Pennsylvania's 18 congressional districts will be “unbound” at this summer's Republican National Convention in Cleveland, meaning they can vote to nominate whomever they want regardless of the primary's outcome.

And that's what many delegate candidates say they'll do.

The Tribune-Review reached out to the 162 people who are running to become GOP delegates in Pennsylvania. While 61 of the 110 candidates who replied said they would cast at least their first convention ballot for the presidential hopeful who wins statewide or in their respective congressional districts, nearly one-third — or 32 of them — said they are committed to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich or Marco Rubio, who has dropped out.

“I'm voting for Trump regardless of the way the popular vote goes or the way the district goes. A vote for me is a vote for Trump,” said Gabriel Keller, 38, of Pine, one of 15 people vying for three delegate spots in the 12th District that stretches from Lawrence County to Somerset and Cambria counties.

Three delegates will be elected in each congressional district, with ballots identifying the delegate candidates by name, but not the presidential contender they support.

Keller said he is “completely against the establishment trying to pull something off at the convention and circumvent the will of the voters,” referring to speculation that GOP leaders will try to prevent the front-running Trump from securing the party's nomination if he doesn't win the required 1,237 delegates before the convention.

Trump has won 736 delegates and needs to win 53 percent of the remaining delegates to reach 1,237 and prevent the first contested GOP convention in 40 years.

Cruz needs to win 82 percent of the remaining delegates to get to 1,237. It's mathematically impossible for Kasich to reach the magic number before the convention.

Of the 943 delegates at stake, 71 will come from Pennsylvania. That includes the 54 delegates elected by congressional districts and 17 appointed at large. The at-large delegates are required to vote on their first convention ballot for the statewide winner. They would become unbound delegates on subsequent ballots.

Eighteen of the congressional-district delegate candidates said they would vote for Cruz regardless of how he performs in the primary, 11 for Trump and one each for Kasich and Rubio.

“I plan to support Cruz even if this district goes for Trump. ... We must not act out of anger and follow the loudest voice in the room,” said Thomas Pyne, 60, of suburban Harrisburg, one of 15 candidates in the 11th District.

Rubio's campaign actively recruited Pennsylvania supporters to run for delegate spots before it went belly up in March, forcing all but one of the candidates to reconsider their options.

“I plan to take many things into consideration, including who wins the congressional district as well as the state. I want to be sure that the party comes out of Cleveland with a strong ticket that can win in November,” said Mary Beth Dougherty, 50, a former Rubio supporter from Schuylkill County who is one of 11 candidates in the 17th District.

Minds made up

Tioga County's Ryan Belz, 22, one of 14 delegate candidates in the 10th District, said he reached out to Trump's national campaign last year to see if there was any way he could help. It urged him to run for delegate.

“I have been a huge supporter of Mr. Trump for many years,” said Belz, a Penn State senior. “Ever since I could vote at 18, I have always wrote in, ‘Donald J. Trump' because he is exactly what this country needs.”

Some delegate candidates expressed displeasure with candidates who had their minds made up.

“I take my responsibility to represent the voters of the district seriously. While I may work for my personal preferred candidate, I will support at the convention the candidate voted for by the voters of the district,” said Robert Howard, 65, of Marshall, a 12th District candidate.

Added 11th District candidate Richard Morelli, 45, of Luzerne County: “I believe we need to move to a process where the candidates are chosen by the popular vote of the people, not by wheeling and dealing of delegates at the conventions.”

Josh Putnam, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, dismissed the idea that unbound delegates are disenfranchising regular voters by supporting a candidate who is not preferred in their districts or states.

“One could argue that if voters did their homework, they could determine the allegiances of delegate candidates and vote accordingly to retain that privilege,” Putnam said.

Putnam said the delegate selection process does not usually produce high drama.

“Delegates, regardless of how they are chosen, tend to go to the convention and vote en masse for a presumptive nominee that has been collectively chosen across the country through the primary season,” Putnam said. “It is only in ultra-competitive or close nomination races that these sorts of rules are brought under the harsh light of public scrutiny, and we discover ... there are parts of it that may not operate in as fair a manner as we would expect or desire.”

‘The people will choose'

First-time delegate candidates quickly discover that running for delegate isn't easy. For experienced candidates, it can be a labor of love.

For starters, each candidate must collect at least 250 signatures to get on the ballot. Some candidates have significant name recognition, such as U.S. Reps. Bill Shuster in the southwest, Ryan Costello in the southeast, former congressmen Phil English in the northwest and Don Sherwood in the northeast. Others do not.

Boosting name recognition can be hard, particularly given the size and layout of some congressional districts. At more than 10,000 square miles, the Fifth Congressional District represented by U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson is bigger than Vermont and includes 16 counties. Candidates across the state say they spend a lot of time at Republican committee dinners and other events.

If elected, Ginger Strain, 72, of Penn Township in Westmoreland County said she won't be “woo-able” by operatives dangling perks or promises for delegates' votes. That happened in 1976, when incumbent Gerald Ford fought off a challenge from Ronald Reagan and Pennsylvania played a starring role in deciding the outcome.

Reagan campaigned often in Pennsylvania leading up to the convention and said he'd make the state's Republican U.S. Sen. Richard S. Schweiker his running mate if nominated. Ford invited Pennsylvania delegates to the White House and flew some around on Air Force One.

“I am a stubborn conservative Republican who believes in the power invested in the people by our Founding Fathers. Trying to woo me would most likely be a mistake,” said Strain, one of 11 candidates in the 18th District.

“It will be the person who wins the primary in my district that gets my delegate vote and then, if necessary, the person who wins Pennsylvania,” Strain said. “The people will choose the next president, not the power brokers.”

Tom Fontaine and Salena Zito are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Fontaine at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com. Reach Zito at 412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com.

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