The complexity of the Republican presidential nominating process has been widely observed over the past few months. Its seemingly byzantine rules and procedures are only complicated further by the fact that many states have different methods for allocating their delegates. In particular, Pennsylvania divvies-up its delegates in a unique way.
The Keystone State’s 71 Republican national delegates are determined by its April 26th closed primary election. Only 17 of the delegates are bound to the candidate who wins the statewide vote – and that’s just on the first ballot. If no candidate has a majority of the delegates on that first vote at the Republican National Convention, then these 17 delegates are unbound and can vote for any candidate the convention rules allow. Pennsylvania’s other 54 delegates don’t even have to wait for that first ballot though. They’re all unbound throughout the entire process.
On primary day, each of Pennsylvania’s eighteen congressional districts will elect 3 delegates. Registered Republicans are allowed to vote for up to three of the candidates running to be a national delegate in their district. Those candidates run uncommitted, without any presidential candidate’s name next to theirs on the ballot. If elected, these delegates can support whichever presidential campaign they’d like and switch sides as many times as they want, regardless of their congressional district’s preference.
In order to run for one of these unbound delegate positions, you have to pay a fee of $25 and provide nomination petition documents to the Pennsylvania Department of State with at least 250 signatures from fellow registered Republicans within your congressional district. These are the basic requirements to get on the ballot, but staying on it, in this rough-and-tumble political season, necessitates a bit more precision and discipline.
A would-be delegate-candidate should be wary of having their name knocked-off the ballot. Other registered Republicans in their congressional district can file challenges against them on the grounds that they didn’t submit 250 legitimate signatures. In their petition against your nomination, the challenger will assert that certain signatures should not count and that without those signatures, the would-be delegate-candidate doesn’t meet the 250 signature threshold.
One way challengers discount signatures is by asserting that a specific signature belongs to someone who isn’t a registered Republican or who doesn’t actually live in the correct congressional district, or both. Another challenger tactic is to discount an entire page of signatures with the argument that the circulator of that page isn’t from the correct congressional district. A circulator is someone who helps the would-be delegate-candidate collect signatures on their nomination petition documents. Circulators’ help can be crucial for anyone trying to get the required number of signatures because, per state rules, those signatures can only collected during the three weeks between January 26 and February 16 – a period when the weather throughout Pennsylvania is less than accommodating to extended sidewalk conversations and evening solicitations at the front door.
When challenged, a delegate-candidate has the right to fight back and argue that her signatures are legitimate and satisfy the state requirements. However, there are costs to fighting back. A candidate may be required to hire legal representation and spend hours in multiple court hearings. For some delegate-candidates, the fight is just not worth it.
Allen Stern faced this dilemma. After filing to run for Republican national delegate in Pennsylvania’s 14th Congressional District, he was challenged by local lawyer Ron Hicks on behalf of Kaaren Amodeo and Denise Johnston. Stern says that he believes that the challenge is “bogus” and that all of his signatures are legitimate. Hicks stands by the validity of the challenge.
Despite Stern’s confidence, he chose not to fight the challenge and instead withdrew from the race. Stern explained that as a father of two, with a full-time job, he was worried about the time and expense that fighting the challenge would involve.
According to Stern, he had entered the delegate race to play a bigger role in the GOP grassroots; he wanted to put his stamp on the party platform at the convention. Stern said that after this experience though, he felt “completely disenfranchised” and asserted that the challengers “don’t want a fair playing field.” He claims that his candidacy to be delegate was challenged because he wasn’t one of the local GOP’s “anointed candidates.”
For its new documentary You Vote, They Decide: The Secret Campaigns for President, MSNBC interviewed the three remaining delegate-candidates in the 14th Congressional District. One of those candidates, Mary Ann Meloy, who was also a delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention, explained how the local party influences this type of race:
“So you have a party structure of local committee men, committee women – chairmen, vice chairmen. In each and every municipality you have a leadership factor within the Republican Party. And all of us know who these people are. And you go and you visit with them, and you go to their committee meetings. And you tell them why you think you should be the delegate. And they in turn are the people that staff and vote, staff and work the voting places. And they will pass out your cards or they will just pass your name to voters as they come in. And people also take that on a trust and that they know their local committee person.”
One of the other remaining candidates in that district, Mike DeVanney, who has experience managing both mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns in Pennsylvania, added, “I think that’s a very important distinction, that this is a party process. Primaries are party processes.” Addressing the critique that this is a disenfranchising system, DeVanney reiterated, “I just don’t see that at all. This is a party function. We’re here to the nominate the best candidate. And then voters will have the opportunity to decide what they want to do in November.”
Kaaren Amodeo and Denise Johnston, the women who challenged Sterns, are both former Oakmont Republican Committee Chairwomen. Their lawyer, Ron Hicks, is the Solicitor for the Republican Committee of Allegheny County. In addition to Allen Stern, they brought challenges against three other delegate-candidates in the 14th Congressional District. Each of those candidates also chose to withdraw from the race, rather than fight the candidates in court. When speaking with MSNBC, Hicks explained that his role as Solicitor is separate from his private practice and that he represented Amodeo and Johnston in a private capacity. He was emphatic that the Republican Party of Allegheny County did not challenge those four delegate-candidates, his private clients did. Ed Saxon, the Chairman of the Oakmont Republican Committee told MSNBC that Amodeo and Johnston are no longer formally involved with the Oakmont Republican Committee.
Seven people submitted their filing fees and paperwork to run for Republican national delegate in the 14th Congressional District. Four of them were challenged by Amodeo and Johnston, and those four withdrew. Now there will only be three candidates on the ballot for three national delegate spots. Through their challenges, Amodeo and Johnston have essentially determined the outcome of the race.
This isn’t the only race to have been clinched before primary day. Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District will only have three candidates on the ballot for Republican national delegate as well. Back in February, five candidates had filed to enter the race, but two of them were challenged by Mike Cibik, the Vice-Chairman of the Philadelphia Republican Executive Committee.
While Cibik is a self-described “diehard Trump fan,” he explained that ideology wasn’t the impetus for his challenges. He said that earlier-on the local party had met and decided to endorse Chris Vogler and Seth Kaufer for national delegate. Cibik said that he challenged two of the other candidates because, he said not only did they not have the local GOP’s support, but the total number of signatures that they each submitted didn’t surpass 250 by more than a hundred; thus, he said it was reasonable to expect that he could find enough potentially illegitimate signatures within those candidates’ nomination petitions to effectively cast doubt on whether they actually met the state’s requirements.
Despite being a strong Trump fan, Cibik challenged one of the delegate-candidates who was known to also be a Trump supporter. In fact, this challenged delegate, who has been a registered Republican for less than a year, told MSNBC that the Trump campaign had coordinated his entire delegate-candidacy. The campaign organized the circulators who collected the signatures for this candidate. He hadn’t actually met the circulators before, and they hadn’t known him prior to collecting signatures for him. Some of these circulators drove in from Lancaster, PA to collect signatures in the candidate’s congressional district, which is mostly in Philadelphia. It is about an hour’s drive between the two cities, and the Trump campaign reimbursed the circulators for the cost of gas for those trips back and forth. (Signatures collected by circulators from different congressional districts than the candidate aren’t supposed to count towards meeting the 250 state-required threshold, so it appears that at least some of the signatures that this candidate submitted were illegitimate.)
The Trump campaign invested resources and manpower into this delegate-candidacy, yet it was challenged by a decidedly pro-Trump local party leader. Cibik explained that, while he could have ended up voting for this pro-Trump delegate candidate, he challenged him because “the kid did it the wrong way.” If he had attended the local party meeting and sought its endorsement, Cibik insists that the race may have turned out differently.
Pennsylvania’s uncommitted delegates could play a significant role at this year’s Republican National Convention. While these are local races, influenced by local party actors, it seems that they share a theme with the national race: insiders vs. outsiders.