For most of the past two decades, Ben Ginsberg has been a brusque, hard-driving lawyer who has won the admiration of some and disdain of others as one of the Republican Party’s behind-the-scenes legal fixers.
He helped lead George W. Bush’s legal team that won the Florida recount battle in 2000, defended the Swift Boat veterans whose 2004 ads attacked John F. Kerry’s Vietnam War record and was among the first to predict that the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United ruling would create a campaign finance free-for-all.
Even President Obama grudgingly turned to Mr. Ginsberg this year to serve as co-chairman of a bipartisan effort to protect voting rights — to the alarm of some liberals.
Mr. Ginsberg’s power play inside the Republican National Convention last year, however, rankled many by imposing rules changes that undercut states’ rights to pick their own delegates. In a chaotic pre-convention fight, some initially feared the rule changes opened the door for Mr. Ginsberg’s boss, Mitt Romney, to name his own nominating delegates. But it was soon determined that the rules applied only to 2016 and later.
Nonetheless, the fight became a tipping point for many Republican loyalists, who in years past kept private their distaste for Mr. Gingsberg’s take-no-prisoners style.
Now, days before the Republican National Committee’s annual summer meeting in Boston, some of these loyalists are sounding off publicly as they launch an effort to roll back the rule changes.
“Ginsberg’s work has left a bad taste in the mouths of not just newly active Republicans, but in many GOP conservatives who have been fighting these battles for a very long time,” said Carolyn McLarty of Oklahoma, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee’s Resolutions Committee.
Virginia RNC member Morton Blackwell, founder of the Conservative Leadership Forum, added that “these Ginsberg power grabs were unprecedented.”
Mr. Blackwell, who served in the Reagan White House, personally wrote RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, urging him to dig in at the RNC summer meeting Wednesday through Aug. 17 in Boston. Mr. Blackwell and his supporters want the word “shall” restored to rules that mandate states choose their delegates, displacing the word “may” that Mr. Ginsberg successfully inserted last year.
“In living memory, no candidate about to become the Republican presidential nominee had ever used his power to generate wholesale changes in the rules of the Republican party at the convention which was about to nominate him,” the veteran Virginia Republican National Committee member wrote in 1,890-word letter to Mr. Priebus that was obtained by The Washington Times.
Mr. Ginsberg seemingly isn’t fazed by the move against his rule changes, the suggestion he overstepped his grounds as Mr. Romney’s attorney or the perennial criticisms of his style.
Asked to comment, he replied, “I have nothing to say off the record and therefore you have nothing from me on the record.”
Mr. Ginsberg has his supporters, too, among the party faithful, especially among moderates and establishment figures who often have drawn on his legal prowess in election disputes.
“It’s hard to put into words what Ben Ginsberg means to the Republican Party,” said Rich Beeson, Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign political director. “It’s like asking what Michael Jordan did for basketball.”
Mr. Ginsberg’s critics chafe at his style and say his actions last year warrant a slap.
“Ginsberg’s move at the convention was an ill-advised, candidate-driven power grab, and Morton’s outrage is well justified,” said David Norcross, who like Mr. Ginsberg served as an RNC general counsel.
Mr. Priebus has been noncommittal, telling The Times in an email that the RNC “Rules Committee is working on many issues surrounding the primary calendar and debate process. And this is one of them.”
The rule at issue spells out the penalties for a state that holds a presidential nomination contest before April 1. The fear of two penalties keeps most states in line. One such punishment removes a state’s power to award all its convention delegates to a candidate who wins the most votes in a primary. Dividing delegates proportionally among candidates weakens the state’s influence on the voters in states whose primaries follow. The other punishment reduces a calendar violating state’s delegation to half strength. Absent these penalties, large states can be expected to elbow one another to the front of the primaries calendar line. California and the six next biggest states could decide the Republican Party nominee on a single day in March 2016.
The word change Mr. Ginsberg engineered in August 2012 changed a state’s absolute right to pick its own delegates to the conditional “may.” The change initially left some RNC members who had just voted for it worried that they opened the door for Mr. Romney to pick his own delegates for the nationally televised roll call, casting aside delegates picked by the states. At the time, Mr. Romney’s team wanted a convention full of unanimity, without dissenters from the camps of former rivals Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. In the end, it was determined that the rules would affect only 2016 and beyond.
But the fight and the fact that the rule remains in effect have remained thorns for some of the party’s more conservative activists, who often take a dim view of what they call the party “establishment” and its political wisdom.
“Morton is right on the rule change and right in the perception that Ginsberg’s rules changes were nothing but an overreaching power grab on behalf of our party’s ‘establishment,’” said Mrs. McLarty, a founding member of the RNC’s Conservative Caucus.
Former Iowa GOP Chairman Kayne Robinson suggests the impending battle is as much about Mr. Ginsberg’s style as it is the rules fight.
“Ginsberg is a well-known bully who loves to intimidate people,” Mr. Robinson said.
Of course, when it came to bullying liberals and Democrats, Republicans in past elections didn’t seem to mind that much.
“Ben has always been steady, wise, tough and loyal throughout everything from the Florida recount and four different presidential campaigns. I always feel good looking over and seeing him on my side during a political fight,” said Matt Rhoades, Mr. Romney’s 2012 campaign manager.
Added Mississippi RNC member Henry Barbour, “Ben is the go-to lawyer for Republican federal campaigns. Anyone running for president would do well to have him on their team.”