By Kyle Cheney and Katie Glueck
04/27/16 12:12 AM EDT
Ted Cruz has notched local delegate wins in a series of states — from the Carolinas to Georgia to Minnesota — that portend bigger victories in state conventions over the next few weeks. | AP Photo
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Donald Trump has earned more than 9 million votes in the Republican primary and amassed a lead that puts him on the brink of clinching the GOP nomination. But in the shadow contest for the delegates to a contested national convention, he’s getting obliterated by Ted Cruz.
It’s halftime in the hustle for loyal convention delegates. By the weekend, more than 1,300 will have been elected in county, state or congressional district elections or selected by local Republican leaders. So far, Cruz has consistently dominated these contests, securing slots for hundreds of loyalists to the convention in Cleveland in July. Trump, on the other hand, has consistently flopped.
A Politico analysis suggests the mogul is headed for an even rougher second half, limiting his opportunities to survive a contested convention and dramatically raising the stakes of his quest to secure the nomination outright.
“It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that one out,” said Stuart Jolly, Trump’s former field director, who resigned last week amid leadership changes. Jolly said his driving directive was always to win primaries to avoid having to compete in an establishment-driven delegate trench war.
“My goal was always — if you win the primary you don’t have to worry about the delegate stuff.”
Indeed, if Trump keeps winning primaries as polls suggest he will, he’ll secure enough delegates — 1,237 — to win the nomination without a contested convention. But it’s clearer than ever that this is his best — and perhaps only — shot at the nomination because of his ineffectiveness at lining up loyal delegates.
The evidence that Trump would struggle on subsequent ballots is mounting:
Texas GOP insiders say their home state senator is positioned to sweep the state’s enormous delegate haul. “I’d be very surprised if 155 out of the 155 weren’t for Cruz,” said Steve Munisteri, a former state party chairman who is unaligned. “I just don’t see how he doesn’t win all the delegates.”
In Missouri — a state Trump narrowly won — Cruz is poised to dominate local and state-level contests for 49 delegates. Insiders there say six of the state’s eight congressional districts, which award three delegates apiece, are tilted toward Cruz.
“At county caucuses, they were able to get more of their people in in many cases,” said Carl Bearden, who chaired Cruz’s campaign in Missouri. “Some Trump slates of delegates were elected as well. But overall it appears the Cruz camp has been able to motivate and activate supporters to come out to county caucuses to elect delegates to the next level of conventions.”
— In Iowa, where Cruz narrowly edged Trump on Feb. 1, a slate of 15 statewide delegates will include at least 11 Cruz backers, including Rep. Steve King, conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats and Cruz staffer Bryan English. The others – including Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer – aren’t exactly Trump loyalists, though Branstad has also been critical of Cruz. (Cruz already won 11 of Iowa’s 12 local delegate slots).
— In Illinois, GOP sources close to the delegate process tell Politico that John Kasich supporters are most likely to dominate the 12 statewide delegate slots, even though they’ll be pledged to Trump on a first ballot. Those slots typically go to elected officials, party loyalists and donors. “There is a historical deference. People have to understand, for statewide officeholders there has been a historical preference given, but that has not been determined,” said Jack Dorgan, who is heading up the committee that will recommend the at-large delegates to the full convention in Peoria.
Illinois GOP Chairman Tim Schneider said that the at-large candidate selection would be transparent: “We will receive those applications, vet them, come up with 12, then that slate will be put forward at the state convention.”
Cruz is lining up a slate to run in this weekend’s Arizona delegate elections, despite losing nearly 2-to-1 to Trump in the state’s March 22 primary, and Trump allies are nervous he could make gains. Cruz’s state director there, Constantin Querard, has deep ties to local legislators and many precinct committeemen involved in the delegate selection process, and he’s been furiously recruiting anti-Trump delegate candidates.
— In Virginia, which holds its state convention this weekend and will select 13 national convention delegates, at least one state GOP central committee member noted that Cruz supporters are expected to dominate the attendance and will be able to have their way with the delegate slate. Candidates for delegate slots include Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who is one of Cruz’s top
delegate organizers. Trump’s state director, Corey Stewart, is also running, along with former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
Cruz has notched local delegate wins in a series of states — from the Carolinas to Georgia to Minnesota — that portend bigger victories in state conventions over the next few weeks. And in states like Nebraska, Indiana and West Virginia, obscure rules virtually guarantee that Trump will win fewer supportive delegates than he earns on primary day.
In short, there are few opportunities for Trump to make up ground he’s lost to Cruz in the delegate hunt.
“Based on what we see so far, probably half the people sitting in the seats bound to vote for Trump on the first ballot aren’t for Trump,” said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican operative handling convention strategy for Ohio Gov. Kasich. “I don’t see any way he can come back from that.”
That sentiment was bolstered by anti-Trump forces, who predict the mogul would lose 200 to 300 delegate votes on a second ballot at a contested convention.
“I have seen no indication that the Trump campaign has paid any attention to who the delegates are being elected into these delegate slots at conventions,” added Katie Packer, founder of the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC. “They not only
haven’t been successful but in many cases appear to not even know who their people are.”
Trump can make the entire delegate battle moot with strong victories in the remaining 15 primaries — including five across the Northeast on Tuesday that heavily favored the mogul. Cruz and Kasich announced an alliance of convenience on Sunday, agreeing to quit competing for certain states to help the other topple Trump or limit his margins of victory.
On the first vote at the convention, about 90 percent of delegates are required to vote based on the results of state primaries and caucuses. On a second ballot, only 42 percent are still bound to those results. By the third ballot, 80 percent of delegates are free from all restrictions. That’s why the identity of the delegates is crucial — once they’re free to vote their conscience, their loyalty is paramount.
It’s the second and third ballots where Cruz can do the most damage. Texas’ delegation, including 48 members allocated to Trump, is bound to follow the state’s primary results for two ballots.
Trump’s top operative, Paul Manafort, told Politico that despite his laser focus on avoiding a contested convention, he’s got no plans to concede the delegate fight to Cruz.
“I am not ceding any fight — on delegate selection or second or third or any ballot,” he wrote in an email. “I have several paths to victory. Additionally, I emphasize that we will win on the first ballot, and it will be evident by June 7. So all of Cruz’s second ballot efforts are meaningless.”
Trump has expanded his delegate outreach team, and on Monday he announced the hiring of Ken McKay to “support our delegate operations team and bolster our ground game efforts.”
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Yet over the weekend, Manafort was careful to note that Trump’s poor performance in delegate fights was largely the result of organizational shortcomings that occurred before he joined the Trump campaign last month.
“Most of the conventions that happened yesterday happened or were set in stages a month or two ago — and before, frankly, I was involved,” he said an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” a day after another delegate beatdown at the hands of the Cruz campaign.