A slot at the Republican National Convention used to be a career-maker — a chance to make your name on the big stage and to catch the eye of the Republican donors and activists who make or break campaigns.
In the year of Trump: Not so much.
With the convention less than a month away, POLITICO contacted more than 50 prominent governors, senators and House members to gauge their interest in speaking. Only a few said they were open to it, and everyone else said they weren’t planning on it, didn’t want to or weren’t going to Cleveland at all — or simply didn’t respond.
“I am not attending,” said South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, who is overseeing the high-profile congressional Republican investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of the attacks on Benghazi. Gowdy, who said he was taking his family to the beach instead, hasn’t gone to conventions in the past and didn’t plan to now.
“I’m not,” said South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, a former two-term governor. “But hope you have a good Thursday!”
“Don’t know,” said Sean Duffy, a reality-TV-star-turned-Wisconsin congressman. “I haven’t thought about it.”
Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo: “I won’t be there.”
The widespread lack of interest, Republicans say, boils down to one thing: the growing consensus that it’s best to steer clear of Trump.
“Everyone has to make their own choice, but at this point, 70 percent of the American public doesn’t like Donald Trump. That’s as toxic as we’ve seen in American politics,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican strategist who helped to craft the party’s 2012 convention. “Normally, people want to speak at national conventions. It launched Barack Obama’s political career.”
Trump’s team is tight-lipped about to whom it’ll extend speaking invitations, as is the Republican National Committee. But many of the party’s most prominent pols say they’re flat-out not interested — and that Trump should look elsewhere. Their rejections range from terse to abrupt, and — in a year otherwise lacking in GOP unity — they seem to be using the same talking points.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte “is not attending the convention,” said a spokeswoman. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner “is not attending the convention,” his office said. A spokesman for South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham: “He announced back in May he’s not attending.” For South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: “The governor has not been asked to speak at the convention and has no plans to.” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn: “There are no plans for him to speak.”
House members often have to scrap to get national attention — and eagerly take whatever they can get. But taking the podium in Cleveland? No thanks.
Among the pols staying mum on their convention plans? Those playing host. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman will attend the convention and host several events in Cleveland over the course of the week. But a spokesman, Kevin Smith, said “no announcements” had yet been made on whether he would speak. A spokesman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Trump primary rival who has pointedly refused to endorse the presumptive nominee, declined to comment on whether he wants to deliver a speech.
In past conventions, up-and-coming young senators — think Obama, Barack — have used the limelight to raise their profiles. Not so with Republicans this year: Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, who’s said he won’t vote for the real estate mogul, isn’t expected to be at Cleveland. Utah Sen. Mike Lee, an outspoken Trump critic who will be serving on the convention’s powerful Rules Committee, hasn’t been asked to speak, said his spokesman, Conn Carroll. Would he if asked? Said Carroll: “If I got a hypothetical question I probably wouldn’t answer it.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who recently changed his mind and announced a reelection bid, has said it’s unlikely he’ll be asked to speak — but if he does, it won’t be on Trump’s behalf.
Even the GOP leaders in charge of maintaining the party’s congressional majorities — Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker and Oregon Rep. Greg Walden — wouldn’t say whether they’d take the podium.
Trump’s convention troubles represent a big turnabout from 2012, when Mitt Romney’s team had an endless list of choices. Whoever Romney wanted to speak, one ex-adviser to the former GOP nominee recalled, he got. They would end up packing the three-day schedule with boldfaced names, including Haley, Portman and Kasich. (One person who didn’t end up making it to the stage: Trump. The New York businessman had initially been slated to speak on the opening day of the convention, with Romney’s nervous aides agreeing to allow him brief remarks, according to “Double Down,” the post-2012 campaign chronicle. The appearance was scrapped, however, because inclement weather forced the cancellation of that day’s activities.)
In 2008, John McCain similarly drew a number of GOP stars to his convention in St. Paul. “There was a great deal of interest,” recalled Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who oversaw the programming for that convention.
A Trump spokesperson declined to comment on this year’s convention plans. But the billionaire, who has fashioned himself as a Beltway outsider, has hinted that he wants nonpoliticians to have major roles. During a rally this month, Trump floated the idea of having a “Winner’s Evening,” which would spotlight sports stars.
It’s also expected that Trump’s children, including daughter Ivanka and sons Eric and Donald Jr., will get prime-time spots. The three have emerged as Trump’s most vocal surrogates.
And, while many are reluctant to appear onstage in Cleveland, some aren’t. Those pols who’ve thrown their support to Trump, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, seem like natural candidates to be convention speakers. Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, a former leader of the Navy SEAL team that would later kill Osama bin Laden, hopes to get a slot, said a spokeswoman. Zinke has endorsed Trump and recently appeared at one of his rallies.
For all the unease about Trump, some argue, a speaking slot at the party’s national convention remains a precious commodity.
“The exposure has enormous upsides for someone who performs well,” said Fred Malek, a prominent GOP fundraiser who helped to organize the 1988 convention, “and this is the Republican convention, not the Trump convention.”