Many Republicans in the District of Columbia have been waiting for a Marco Rubio presidential bid for years. The young, charming son of immigrants sparked presidential speculation from almost the moment he first landed in the nation's capital. When he announced his candidacy, dozens of the city's registered Republicans (an already tiny community) lined up to become delegates for him.
But now that he's gone, Rubio's delegates in DC and across the nation have to figure out what to do with their potentially game-changing votes at the Republican National Convention in July.
As each week goes by, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has picked up more delegates, but with two opponents still in the race, it's becoming increasingly likely that he will not reach the threshold necessary to earn the nomination out-right, forcing a contested convention. If that happens in July, Rubio's 171 delegates could play a key role in either handing Trump the nomination or taking it away.
Rubio could free all of his delegates immediately by endorsing another candidate or officially ending his campaign (he only "suspended" it earlier this month). But keeping those delegates tied to his campaign until the convention is the only means Rubio now has of trying to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. Rubio himself is now writing to Republican state parties across the country to make sure that those delegates stay put, according to the Associated Press.
It should come as no surprise that many of the Rubio delegates across the country, like their candidate, are not fond of Trump. That's particularly true in DC, where Trump received just 14 percent of the vote at the state's convention on March 12 and failed to reach the threshold to earn a single delegate. Not to mention that fact that many DC Republicans, and a majority of the city's delegates, are longtime political operatives working in the very Republican establishment that has been fighting to stop Trump for months.
But several of DC's delegates and party leaders said that there are a small number in their group who are at least open to the possibility of supporting the frontrunner at the convention. The rest are essentially stuck holding their breath, hoping that their votes for Rubio will prevent Trump from winning and potentially give them a chance to be kingmakers.
Rina Shah Bharara, is one of those delegates. The DC political consultant was first drawn to Rubio when she saw him speak not long after he came to Capitol Hill. Like Rubio, Shah Bharara is the daughter of immigrants. Her parents emigrated from India to Uganda before fleeing Idi Amin's regime to the United States. Rubio's message as a first generation American doing things his parents would have never thought possible really resonated with her.
Shah Bharara, who had never campaigned for Rubio before, decided after giving birth to her first child just three months ago that she needed to get involved in the presidential election. That message resonated with DC Republicans, and Shah Bharara won the second-highest number of votes at the party's convention this month.
But now that Rubio is out of the race, Shah Bharara may have a decision to make. If Trump fails to win the 1,237 delegates necessary to earn the nomination on the first ballot at the convention, Shah Bharara and her fellow Rubio delegates will have to decide which candidate to turn to next.
The rules for what the Rubio delegates may do vary from state-to-state. Twenty-nine Rubio delegates will be freed immediately to vote for whomever they want at the convention and will be top targets for the remaining Republican campaigns. In Trump's case, these delegates could help him to secure the nomination, while the other candidates could use Rubio's supporters to prevent that from happening.
But the bulk of these Rubio delegates — 99 including Shah Bharara and nine others in DC — will have to vote for the Florida senator on the first ballot and will only get a chance to switch their allegiances if a second ballot is necessary. (National Review has a great breakdown of these state rules here).
And that's where things get interesting. On a second ballot, many delegates who supported Senator Ted Cruz, Ohio Governor John Kasich and even Trump will be released as well to vote for the candidate of their choice. Already, the Cruz and Kasich campaigns are sending out aides to convince Trump delegates across the country to consider them on a second ballot. But the Rubio delegates will be the only ones that no longer have a candidate to be loyal to, and will be the easiest to lobby and pick off.
DC is unique in that it is one of the only places that has already named its delegates. Although 31 states and DC have already held their Republican primary elections, almost none of them have completed the process of choosing the individual delegates who will attend the convention in July.
That could put a lot of pressure on the small DC delegation, which is not used to having much sway in the nominating process. Republicans make up just 6.25 percent of registered voters in DC (that's 27,000 people in a city of 672,000). None of the candidates even bothered campaigning in the nation's capitalfor their votes before the city's primary this month.
Making a complicated situation even more complex, some of Kasich's six delegates in DC aren't even Kasich supporters. Because the party voted separately for delegates and for presidential candidates, DC elected more Rubio delegates than he earned. Now, some DC Republicans who have campaigned and raised money for Rubio for years will be forced to vote for Kasich at the convention — at least on that first ballot.
For now, the DC Republican delegation is taking a cautious wait-and-see approach, according to Rich Counts, one of Rubio's 10 DC delegates. Counts, who by day works in advertising and marketing for several of the city's conservative publications, pointed out that the political prognosticators who are talking about a contested convention are the same people who were saying just a year ago that Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker were the candidates to beat in this election cycle. "And those guys have been gone for ages, you know?" he said.
"A brokered convention is definitely something we're talking about, but we also realize that it's almost futile to make decisions about what's going to happen two months from now because there's still a lot that needs to play out first," Counts said.
Still, that hasn't stopped the delegates from looking at their options. Several are torn between Cruz and Kasich, assuming the Ohio governor makes it to the convention in July. Kasich currently lags far behind the other two candidates in the delegate race and, so far, has only won a single state.
For his part, Counts ran as a Rubio delegate, but he made it clear to DC Republicans that he would be a "Never Trump" vote at the convention, should he get the opportunity to cast additional ballots. Rubio was already on shaky ground when DC Republicans backed him in mid-March and he ended his campaign just three days later.
"I'm looking for someone that has a similar message to Rubio," Counts said of his thought process going forward. "I'm looking for someone who talks about upward mobility and someone who talks about the American Dream, someone who's a real conservative and someone who shows a strong knowledge base when it comes to foreign policy."
Shah Bharara is leaning toward Kasich, who she said is right on policy and is practical, but may not have "the charisma necessary to have national appeal."
For Shah Bharara, Trump and Cruz are non-starters. She campaigned hard to be a delegate, touting her status as a new mother, a daughter of immigrants, an entrepreneur, and a millennial to get that coveted convention spot, and she wants to support a nominee who reflects and supports the very diversity in her party that she represents.
"I think of myself as someone that defies what the national stereotype is, that Democrats try to portray us as, that we are people who aren't young, we aren't women, we aren't women of color, we're not really the kids of immigrants anymore… Democrats have done a better job of messaging to minorities like mine," she said.
As a self-described "Hindu/Jain" with several Muslim family members, Shah Bharara has deep concerns with both candidates: Trump, who is promoting a temporary moratorium on Muslim immigrants and Cruz, who called for patrols of "Muslims neighborhoods" and who Shah Bharara and her family fear is not just an evangelical Christian, but one who "use[s] his religion to govern so openly when we have religious freedom in this country," calling it "scary for me."
And she's also concerned about the anti-Muslim sentiment that is being propagated by members of her own party. "As somebody who's not a Christian but grew up in the Bible Belt, I was raised in southern West Virginia, I never experienced any incidents of racism or sort of religious intolerance," Shah Bharara said. "I began to experience things like being called a sand nigger when I moved to DC. I couldn't believe. I was like, what's that? I'm not from the Middle East. It was crazy."
Trump has said that there could be "riots" on the convention floor if these delegates and others like them manage to nominate someone else in July. The GOP frontrunner has said that if he enters the convention with nearly enough delegates, perhaps even just 100 short of the 1,237 required, and the party hands the nomination to someone else, that "bad things would happen."
But DC's delegates are hopeful that the threat of riots is just bluster. And they say that they're not concerned about what Trump has suggested is tantamount to "disenfranchis[ing]" his supporters, pointing out that the party's rules require a candidate to get to 1,237 delegates. And the convention rules for what comes next won't be written by party elites, as Trump and his supporters have alleged, but by the 2016 delegates — two from each state, territory and the District of Columbia.
"If Donald Trump gets a majority [1,237 delegates] and the majority of delegates vote for him and he doesn't become the nominee, then I think that would be a huge deal and that would be wrong," Counts said. "But if he doesn't get the majority of delegates, that's our process. That's what the rules have always been. And I think we should stick with them in that case."
One alternate delegate in the DC delegation, who works in the tech industry in Washington and asked not to be identified, argued that Trump decided to run as a Republican and, as such, he has to "be willing to really live and die by the rules and the standards and the decisions of the party."
"You know, it's not Donald Trump running party-free to be president — he could have decided to go an independent rout, he could have decided to do like Perot and others have done in the past," the alternate delegate said. "But he decided to run as a Republican and I think that because he made that decision he should respect the wishes and the decision of the party, rather than trying to hold the party hostage with threats of riots and mobs and violence."
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Update: This story was updated at 5:05pm to reflect the news that Senator Rubio is personally asking state Republican parties to ensure that his delegates remain bound to his campaign before the convention. That includes the Alaska Republican Party, which had reallocated Rubio's delegates to the Cruz and Trump campaigns, but has now returned them to the Florida Senator at his request. Those delegates, like those in DC, will now be required to vote for Rubio on the first ballot at the convention and then will be freed to vote for the candidate of their choice should the convention go to additional ballots.