Days from GOP convention, #nevertrump movement still raising 'dark money'

A protester's sign reads 'Dump Trump' during a campaign rally for Donald Trump, president and chief executive officer of Trump Organization Inc.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

With a week to go before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, #nevertrump proponents are still actively raising money, adding to a conservative estimate of nearly $9 million that has been raised since January through contributions to various PACs.

The division within the Republican Party will continue to play out starting Monday as key meetings of the convention rules, credentials and platform committees get underway in Cleveland ahead of the start of the actual convention on July 18.

The money for the #nevertrump campaign has continued to pour in. According to OpenSecrets.org, between January and July 7, 2016, the Courageous Conservatives PAC, which supported Ted Cruz, raised $359,108, and the Trusted Leadership PAC, which also supported the Texas senator, raised $8,408,923.

One effort underway this week is to try to control the vice presidential pick to exert some control over presumptive nominee Donald Trump. The main group leading this charge is the Free the Delegates super PAC. The dollar amount raised by the Free the Delegates organization, however, is a question mark because it has not yet filed with Federal Election Commission. The money raised in the #nevertrump movement is used for infrastructure, such as staff hire and promotional materials, according to sources close to the PACs.

"At this time it's hard to know what Free the Delegates are doing. They are fairly new and we need to wait for the organization to report to see how potent and powerful they will be from a financial standpoint. Unfortunately we won't know until after the convention when they eventually file their reports," said Josh Stewart, deputy communications director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for disclosure and open government.

"We call these groups 'pop-up PACS.' It's almost like dark money, if you will, because pop-up PACs are groups that are created for a certain purpose for a specific amount of time and they use their money and influence to do just that," Stewart said. "I doubt this group would still be functioning after the convention." He added that the earliest the numbers could be seen from the Free the Delegates PAC, based on FEC records releases, would be July 15.

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC.

"Yes, we have financing," said Kendal Unruh, co-founder of the Free the Delegates super PAC. Unruh supported Cruz in the primary and is a member of the convention rules committee. "I can't tell you who is funding us."

Another supporter of Free the Delegates is North Dakota unbound delegate and convention rules committee member Curly Haugland.

Haugland, who has appeared on CNBC several times and penned an opinion piece for CNBC.com, has ignited a storm of controversy by saying the primary system doesn't matter and it's the delegates who choose the nominee, not the American people. Haugland doubled down on his message once Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee saying defiantly, "1237 means nothing," referring to the required delegates to give him the presumptive nominee status.

RNC delegates tell CNBC that since early June they have been bombarded by a well-organized front of phone calls and hundreds of emails encouraging delegates to vote their conscience, go against the primary process and dump Trump. The emails accuse Trump of all kinds of unsubstantiated charges.

On Sunday night, Free the Delegates sent out a press release saying that Arizona delegate Lori Hack will "defy" her state's primary that elected Trump and vote for the candidate of her choice and it will not be Trump, "Duly elected delegates have an obligation to vote their conscience, free of fear and threats," said Hack in the release.

The large and coordinated effort led by Free the Delegates, according to delegates who have been targeted by the group, is so strong that they are "infringing on their rights" as delegates.

"It's ironic because they say the delegates are free and unbound, which is true in a few states, something we already know," said Diana Orrock, RNC committeewoman for Nevada, a Trump supporter and member of the convention rules committee. "And here they are trying to influence delegates to dump Trump."

"The party elites are very upset with the primary outcome and are out of control," said Juanita Cox, who was an alternate delegate in 2012 and is now a delegate for the 2016 convention on the platform committee. "All of these groups (against Trump) are joining together to try and control people. ... Listen, I'm sorry your candidate didn't win the primary. It's the will of the American people who brought Trump here. What these groups are doing is sour grapes. As a member of the platform committee, I await to see what platform Trump presents to us."

Orrock and Cox tell CNBC they have received hundreds of emails and countless phone calls from these organizations urging them to "vote their conscience," pushing "Bible-thumping agendas" and dump Trump rhetoric.

Unruh is the sponsor of the "conscience rule" being pushed on the convention delegates. During Unruh's phone interview with CNBC, it was pointed out that RNC delegates already vote their conscience based on their existing rules. Unruh acknowledged she knew that but added, "We need to codify the rule to let the delegates know the conscience rule already exists."

Unruh said the rule will be brought up by secret ballot. She said she does have the 28 votes needed to have the rule reach the floor of the convention on Day One as a "minority report."

Ironically, Unruh hails from Colorado which is a state that does not bind its delegates to a particular candidate. They can use their "free will" and "conscience" to vote for whomever they want. "What's so ridiculous is Unruh and Free the Delegates super Pac co-founder Regina Thomson both willingly bounded themselves as Cruz delegates to be on the Cruz Crew slate," Orrock said. "She has been a national delegate for 28 years running and has voted for every establishment rules change to bind the delegates. She is bitter her candidate didn't win so now she has created this movement to push her own agenda."

Other anti-Trump super PACs that are being lumped in with the "vote your conscience" movement are speaking up. They say they do not want to be associated with the Free the Delegates agenda. A source with the Trusted Leadership PAC tells CNBC it is not involved in the unbinding movement and it is keeping an arm's-length distance. "If you weigh in on the unbinding it eats up everything you are trying to do in protecting a conservative platform."

Bette Grande, an unbound delegate from North Dakota, former chair of the Ted Cruz campaign in her state and a member of the credentials committee, said she is being sent to the convention by her fellow North Dakotans to vote as an unbound delegate and is expecting a brokered convention. "The conscience call to me should be about who sent me here," she said, "I live in North America. Not North Korea. I want a convention of conscience. Again on who sent me here. I am not naïve. Mr. Trump will win the nomination. I think he will win against Hillary."

"I don't believe in changing rules," Grande said. "You don't get to change the field goal line because your team is losing."