FARGO, N.D. — Ted Cruz’s preferred candidates won the vast majority of convention delegates available in North Dakota over the weekend, taking 18 of 25 slots in the state in another show of organizational strength over Donald Trump.
It’s still not clear how loyal all of Cruz’s slate will be if the Republican nomination heads to a contested convention in Cleveland, as several included on it told POLITICO they were only leaning toward Cruz, or simply opposed to Trump.
But the result was bad news for Trump, who may need unbound delegates like those in North Dakota to lift him above the 1,237 delegate threshold to secure the GOP nomination this summer on the initial ballot. Only one of the 25 delegates selected Sunday has publicly signaled he might back Trump.
“This is a catastrophic outcome for the Trump campaign in North Dakota,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Cruz. “Just when you thought the Donald’s horrible, very bad, no good week couldn’t get any worse, it just did.”
The North Dakota delegation has been heavily sought after because they are free agents from the first ballot in Cleveland, able to support Cruz, Trump or John Kasich. State rules do not, however, require to name the candidate they support before being elected — leaving their votes in question up until the convention in July.
The selection of delegates came after a hard-fought weekend of schmoozing and arm-twisting, as Cruz delivered a keynote convention address, Carly Fiorina campaigned on his behalf all weekend, and Ben Carson spoke for Trump. Kasich’s campaign sent former Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire as their top surrogate but the state party gave him an untimely speaking slot after the delegate ballots had been cast.
The state party first released its list of 25 recommended delegates on Saturday afternoon on the convention floor. But Cruz’s team, led on the ground by North Dakota Republican Bette Grande, worked into the night Saturday to formulate its own recommended list of loyalists.
They handed out printed slate sheets to Republican activists as they arrived at Scheels Arena Sunday for the convention. “Senator Cruz appreciates all of his supporters at the convention, but he asks you to focus your votes on this group due to the necessities of unifying our votes,” said the printed Cruz slate card.
Cruz’s team succeeded in pushing seven new supporters of his onto the final delegate list, in addition to those backing him that had been on the original slate of delegates recommended by the state party.
Those not on the Cruz slate included Gov. Jack Dalrymple, his wife, Betsy, and the endorsed Republican candidate for governor, Wayne Stenehjem. None of those three have declared any preferences. Stenehjem told POLITICO he planned to stay neutral.
It’s also an open question of how loyal many of the supposed Cruz delegates will be.
Dick Dever, who was listed on the Cruz slate, told POLITICO, “Of the three, I like John Kasich the best.”
Another delegate on the Cruz slate, Jim Poolman, said he was only “leaning Cruz.”
And a third, Daniel Traynor, said that while he was adamantly opposed to Trump, he was currently only supporting Cruz because he had the best chance of stopping Trump. “I prefer Kasich,” he said, noting he had previously backed Sen. Marco Rubio.
One delegate not on the Cruz slate, Kelly Schmdit, told POLITICO she was leaning toward Cruz.
The Trump campaign, which dispatched at least four operatives in Fargo, saw the delegation selection as the beginning of the process, not the end.
“We came in with zero expectations. We’re encouraged by the results,” said Brian Jack, a Trump delegate strategist.
Jack noted that “many of those elected from [Cruz’s] “list” are firmly undecided or support other candidates” and that, “We’re confident that we will receive strong support from this delegation.”
North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, who formally endorsed Trump here on Sunday, had worked quietly behind the scenes to ensure Trump loyalists ended up on the delegate list.
“This is a long play,” said Alan Cobb, a senior Trump advise who spent the weekend working the convention. “This is a three-month process between now and Cleveland.”
Gary Emineth, a former state party chairman, became a delegate and said he is leaning toward supporting Trump.
There was a moment of mayhem before the votes were cast when a party activist asked for the allegiances of all the delegate-candidates to be disclosed. The party chairman, Kelly Armstrong, called for a voice vote, and then a visual vote, declaring after both that the request was denied.
“Call the roll,” came shouts from the crowd, as the crowd booed. (“I don’t want to have fisticuffs,” said one party activist.)
Armstrong huddled briefly with other party leaders announced they would call the call. Order soon returned, as the vote —611 in favor, 748 opposed — kept the rules as they were: No allegiances would be disclosed.
In truth, none of the delegates’ allegiances will be written in stone until they cast their votes this summer.
“The benefit of being from North Dakota,” Traynor said, “is being for whoever the hell we want.”
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