The balance of power in the Republican Party has suddenly shifted to delegates, many of whom are entering the national spotlight for the first time.
Delegates say their lives have been turned upside-down by the possibility of a contested convention in July, where their votes could decide whether Donald Trump, or another candidate, is the party’s presidential nominee.
The delegates say campaign officials, the media, friends, family and even neighbors are hounding them with questions about where they stand, with many seeking to sway their decision.
“I was getting my hair cut the other day and I got an earful,” said Luke Letlow, the chief of staff for Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.) and a former delegate for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in Louisiana who can now support whomever he chooses from the first ballot on.
“Everyone has been courteous, and I do a lot more listening than talking, but you just become kind of a sounding board,” he said.
The GOP has long used the delegate positions to reward people who are active in local politics. Aside from the prestige, delegates get the chance to attend the annual convention bash, which this year will be held in Cleveland.
But being a delegate is a fraught assignment this year, with Trump at risk of falling short of the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot.
Unbound delegates could push Trump over the finish line — but if they don’t, Republicans could plunge into the first contested convention in 40 years.
The contested convention scenario would give enormous power to the delegates, who are now being elected at state conventions across the country.
With that power has come a backlash, with Trump and his supporters fanning charges that the party is “rigging” the convention against him.
Steve House, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and a GOP delegate, said he has received death threats since the controversy erupted over the state’s convention last weekend, in which Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won all 34 delegates without a popular vote.
A similar situation is playing out in Indiana, where several delegates have reported getting threats after publicly announcing who they intend to support if the convention goes beyond the first ballot.
Indiana delegate Kyle Babcock said he passed along threatening emails to local authorities after he was quoted as saying he was leaning toward supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich if it turns to a contested convention.
“My phone is ringing off the hook,” Babcock said. “’World News Tonight’ is calling me on the other line right now. I’ve heard from Fox Business News, NPR, The Washington Post. I know how these things work, but my family’s life has been completely upended.”
Some of the delegates say they’re frustrated by the media’s coverage of them.
There are 10 unbound delegates in Louisiana, and many of those interviewed by The Hill say reports that they intend to back Cruz over Trump at the convention are totally false.
The reports spurred Trump to threaten to sue the state party.
“It’s maddening,” said Louisiana delegate Kirk Williamson. Williamson was bound to Rubio before the Florida senator dropped out.
Unbound delegates like Williamson are particularly valuable to the candidates, as they are free to support whomever they want.
Media reports indicate that Cruz has an edge over Trump when it comes to rounding up delegates, which could potentially deliver him the nomination.
But many of the delegates interviewed by The Hill said the Trump campaign has a more active operation than has been reported.
Several of the delegates are genuinely torn over who to support.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought, but I haven’t made my mind up yet, and I don’t know if I’ll say who I’m supporting before the convention,” said Dean Brandon, a Rubio delegate from Alabama who is bound to the former Florida senator on the first ballot.
“I’ve gotten some phone calls from the media and heard from the campaigns, but I imagine it’s really going to heat up the closer we get to the convention,” Brandon said.
Some of the delegates and candidates for delegate are relishing their time in the spotlight.
George Athanasopoulos, the Republican nominee for U.S. House in Colorado’s 7th District, acknowledged that his status as an elected delegate has helped raise his profile ahead of his race against five-term incumbent Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.).
Even potential delegates who haven’t been elected yet say they’ve become local celebrities.
In Pennsylvania, 17 of the state’s delegates will be bound to the popular vote on April 26.
But the remaining 54 delegates will be unbound, setting off a furious scramble by the campaigns to get their supporters elected.
Delegates who are running as Trump supporters say the media is particularly intrigued by their candidacies, with reporters often looking to them for details about Trump’s ground game.
Wayne Buckwalter, a Trump supporter and candidate for delegate in Pennsylvania, said he needs the media attention to overcome the name identification advantage held by the three delegate candidates in his district who have been endorsed by the Chester County Republican Party.
“I’ve talked to six or seven newspapers in Pennsylvania and done talk radio everywhere from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia,” Buckwalter said. “There’s not much else you can really do to campaign for this.”
One potential Trump delegate in Pennsylvania reported that the campaign has caused an intra-family split.
Cody Knotts, who produces low-budget horror films, says he was vetted by the Trump campaign to be a delegate back in January.
“My mother-in-law won’t support Trump, so she said she can’t vote for me,” Knotts said.