The biggest Republican showdown in California this month may not be the second presidential primary debate, scheduled for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Instead, it appears it will take place days later behind the scenes at the Republican Party convention, as allies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump signal they are preparing to fight over the new state party delegate rules — a battle with major implications for the key Super Tuesday contest.
California is a major prize in the presidential primaries, with more delegates than any other state. Previously, California Republicans allocated delegates by congressional district. In other words, candidates could more easily target certain parts of the large and expensive state instead of fighting for the statewide vote.
But in late July, the party wrote a new rule to change the way it operates, allowing the transition to a winner-takes-all state. So as things stand now for the 2024 race, whoever wins more than 50% of the statewide vote gets all the delegates. If no one meets that threshold, the delegates will be allocated proportionally.
DeSantis’ allies rejected the change, which the Trump campaign supported. Delegates were previously awarded to the top two finishers in each congressional district, which could have allowed DeSantis, the second-highest voting candidate in the GOP primary, to capture a large chunk of delegates. Those rules also would have encouraged DeSantis’ allies to spend more liberally in specific congressional districts where they believed Republican voters were more receptive to his candidacy.
When Never Back Down, the super PAC backing DeSantis’ presidential bid, ended its door-knocking operations in the state last month, the group pointed to the rule change as a leading factor in its decision, NBC News first reported.
Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for the super PAC, described the change at the time as “making grassroots engagement impossible” and called it a “Trump-inspired manipulation,” though she expressed hope that the rule would be adopted at this month’s convention could be changed – with both DeSantis and Trump appearing as scheduled speakers.
Additionally, a Trump campaign adviser noted Perrine’s comments and viewed them as evidence that DeSantis’ allies would work hard behind the scenes to change the decision.
“If I tried to do that, I certainly wouldn’t telegraph it,” this person said of trying to lobby delegates to change the new rule. “Since she said that, I’m going to be ready. And the president can be ready, because he will be there.”
However, this adviser noted that changing the rule would be a big boost for DeSantis’ allies. Jessica Millan Patterson, the chairwoman of the Republican Party, said a change at this point would require an amendment to be passed by the rules committee, in addition to gaining the support of a majority of the state party delegation. Without support from the Rules Committee, two-thirds of the state parties’ convention delegation would have to support any change – which amounts to more than 1,400 members.
Patterson said the new rule was not about boosting Trump, but about adhering to the Republican National Committee’s rules on allocating delegates and creating an environment where more of the party’s leading candidates believe the it is worth campaigning there – taking into account the chance of winning. some delegates in a statewide proportional system were more attractive than in the previous format, in which contenders had to finish among the top two candidates in individual congressional districts to leave the state with congressional delegates.
“We immediately saw, as soon as we made this rule change, multiple candidates saying, ‘We want to be at your convention,’” Patterson said. “They’re playing in California now. The possibility of walking away from a Super Tuesday with a percentage of delegates is very exciting for many of these candidates.”
According to her, complaints about the new system were limited to ‘really one camp’.
“Certainly, if you’re in first or second place and you would walk away with a few delegates, I understand,” she said. “But it is our job to ensure that this is a fair process for all candidates entering this race.”
DeSantis’ campaign declined to comment, as did representatives of other major Republican Party presidential campaigns.
The rules for the delegations will be finalized on the last day of the convention — Oct. 1, which also happens to be the deadline to submit any changes to the RNC, Patterson said.
The convention will be well attended by GOP primary candidates. In addition to Trump and DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy will speak, and Patterson hinted at more announcements in the coming days.
“There is no playing favorites in this whole process,” she said. “And as you can see from the candidates coming to our convention who are not named Donald Trump, they feel like this is an opportunity for them too.”
Yet a recent study from the University of California-Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times showed how the new rules could be very beneficial to Trump. The poll showed Trump is on track to capture all of the state’s massive delegations — the largest in the country — under the new rule, as 55% of likely Republican voters in the state planned to vote for him . Only 16% supported DeSantis.
It’s a huge reversal from a February survey by the same pollster, which showed DeSantis leading Trump by 8 points.
Ahead of his campaign, DeSantis’ allies signaled that part of their strategy is to pay early attention to states that will vote in March and beyond, in hopes of building delegates who will outlast them in the long run Trump.
Trump’s campaign adviser described DeSantis’ efforts as “the participation trophy strategy.”
California isn’t the only place where such a battle is underway. In Nevada, a critical state for early voting, two campaigns have made accusations that the controversial process is being driven by an effort to benefit Trump, NBC News reported last week. The Trump campaign and the state Republican Party chairman strongly opposed the accusation, with the former saying it amounted to an excuse for DeSantis’ underperformance.
Back in California, Patterson is preparing for a convention that would certainly be more lively than the gatherings of recent years.
“This puts us in a unique position where candidates are working very hard, not just for a fundraiser in California, because that’s what we’re used to, but to actually earn our votes,” she said. “And that is exciting.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com