Even if Donald Trump wins Washington’s presidential primary next month, he may walk away with a stash of disloyal delegates whose true allegiance lies with his chief rival for the Republican nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Over the past few weeks, Cruz’s campaign has out-hustled Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in a round of county and legislative-district meetings that elected 1,500 delegates to the state GOP convention.
As a result, the state Republican convention that convenes May 18 in Pasco is likely to be packed with Cruz supporters, allowing them to pick the bulk of the state’s 44 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.
That won’t matter much if Trump secures the 1,237 delegates needed for a majority on the first ballot at the national convention. Under party rules, Washington’s delegates will be bound on the first convention ballot by the results of the May 24 state primary.
But if Trump fails to capture the nomination on the initial vote, Washington’s delegates, like those from many other states, will become free to defect to the candidate of their choice. That’s when Cruz’s ground game could give him the edge.
While Trump remains the GOP front-runner, and is expected to win big in New York’s primary on Tuesday, Cruz’s superior organizing has paid off in a string of lower-profile caucus and convention contests.
As in Washington, the national strategy involves close attention to each state’s delegate-selection rules in an effort to get Cruz supporters chosen as national delegates — even in states that Trump has already won.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed commentary last week, Trump complained that the GOP process is “rigged” with “double-agent” delegates, citing Cruz’s sweep of Colorado delegates chosen at party conventions with no primary or caucus vote.
Republican officials say the delegate-selection rules have been public since last year, and Cruz backers say he’s just playing smart politics.
In Washington, Cruz named a state leadership team in November and had slates of delegates lined up for recent county conventions and legislative-district caucuses. His campaign is confident it will head to the Pasco convention with an advantage.
“We had great support throughout the state, in every nook and cranny, in every caucus and convention for Ted Cruz,” said Saul Gamoran, a Mercer Island attorney who is a major fundraiser and state chairman for Cruz. “We’re seeing the Republicans coalesce here.”
While no official delegate tally has been compiled, Republican county leaders and others agree Cruz’s campaign has had a superior ground-game presence.
“They understand how to organize. They’re working it,” said King County GOP chair Lori Sotelo.
At the recent Snohomish County Republican Convention, Kasich supporters had a table with literature, and Trump volunteers handed out strawberry cake and chocolate — yet Cruz backers appeared to be the dominant force, said Billye Brooks-Sebastiani, the county GOP chair.
“I think some of the new people were surprised at how well organized the Cruz people were,” she said.
GOP chairs in Spokane and Whatcom counties reported the same dynamic.
Trump’s effort, by contrast, started late and has shown signs of sloppiness, including an email sent to supporters urging them to sign up to run for delegate at recent conventions and caucuses — two days after a deadline for them to appear on printed delegate ballots.
“Trump people are totally disorganized. They’re getting beat on the ground because they don’t know how to play the game,” said Kirby Wilbur, a former state Republican chairman and talk-show host on 570 KVI radio, who is an uncommitted delegate to the state convention.
Mark Nelson, Trump’s Whatcom County chair and a longtime GOP activist, said he doesn’t begrudge Cruz his delegate success, which included a clean sweep in Whatcom’s county convention.
“They’ve been very effective — congratulations to them. They’re playing it by the rules and they won the delegates,” Nelson said. He recalled he and other Ronald Reagan supporters similarly outflanking rival campaigns locally in 1976.
Nelson said he believes Trump’s business experience makes him best qualified to be president, but the New York billionaire’s outsider background has left him without a good grasp of Republican delegate rules.
State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, Trump’s state campaign chairman, declined to comment.
But state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who is also on Trump’s state leadership team, said he expects Trump to compete hard in the primary — which is what matters most.
“Our delegates are bound by the primary vote that is coming up. Lining up delegates to the state convention isn’t as important,” he said.
While no Trump visit has been announced, Ericksen said he’s “quite optimistic” the candidate will campaign here in early May, when ballots for the all-mail election are sent out.
Backers of Cruz and Kasich also say they expect those candidates to make appearances early next month. All three candidates have been invited to speak at the state convention.
At the convention, 41 delegates will be elected to send to July’s national party convention. State Republican Party Chairman Susan Hutchison and two other party officials will be automatic delegates, rounding out the 44 total.
Kasich recently picked up the support of some big-name former elected Republican leaders. His Washington co-chairs include former Gov. and Sen. Dan Evans, former Sen. Slade Gorton, former state Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Secretaries of State Sam Reed and Ralph Munro.
McKenna acknowledged the Cruz campaign has had the early advantage in organizing delegates.
“A lot of Republicans who want to stop Trump are moving to Cruz in an effort to block Trump from getting the nomination,” McKenna said.
But, he added, that includes “people who would be happy to see Kasich be the nominee.”
Far behind in the delegate count, Kasich is banking on emerging as the nominee at a contested convention. His supporters point to polling that shows him as a better general-election matchup against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Gamoran, Cruz’s state chairman, first met Cruz while celebrating Passover last year in California, and said he came away impressed with the Texas senator, and believes his campaign’s organizing success is a sign he’d bring similar strengths to the White House.
“He is really data driven … He was committed to running a professional campaign, and I think we are seeing the results,” Gamoran said.
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