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How the North Dakota GOP is freezing out Trump

North Dakota will select its delegates to the Republican National Convention this weekend, but the party won’t be asking any actual voters to help do it. Instead, state party officials are relying on the ultimate insider process, one that tilts the playing field toward a party-backed candidate like Ted Cruz — and puts Donald Trump at a deep disadvantage.

An estimated 2,000 party officials and activists convene at the state party’s convention in Fargo this weekend to pick 25 delegates to send to the convention in July. But unlike other delegates, North Dakota’s will be free to vote for whichever candidate they like, even on the all-important first-ballot where Trump could clinch the nomination with 1,237 votes, or fall short and find himself at the mercy of a contested convention process.

The state convention is the closest thing to a GOP nominating contest that North Dakota will hold, and with the process condensed to a single weekend, all three remaining campaigns are scrambling to lock up a slate of delegates that they can count on for support in July. Cruz will deliver the keynote address Saturday, Ben Carson will give a speech on Trump’s behalf Sunday, and John Kasich is sending former New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey.

But any candidate trying to get newcomers onto the delegate slate will run up against a process that is controlled by state party officials at almost every turn.

“We basically honor our party elders,” said Curly Haugland, the RNC committeeman from North Dakota and a national delegate who says he’ll go to Cleveland uncommitted. “The likelihood of a newbie getting in is slim.”

The process adds North Dakota to a list of states where Trump is struggling to find reliable delegates for the July convention. Nationwide, Cruz and other anti-Trump forces have been working to separate the GOP front-runner from his delegates, hoping they can persuade delegates — even those who voters sent to Cleveland to vote for Trump on the first ballot — to turn against him in subsequent rounds of voting. But this weekend, the stakes are higher, as first-ballot votes are on the line.

The state’s process kicked off Friday afternoon, when a party-controlled “Permanent Committee on Organization” reviewed a list of 105 applications from interested delegate candidates, all registered Republicans who swear allegiance to their party’s eventual nominee.

The committee reviews the applicants based on a scoring rubric heavily weighted toward party insiders. Among the factors considered: 40 percent for history of service to the state GOP above all other considerations, 25 percent for a history of financial contributions, 10 percent for being a federal or statewide candidate, 10 percent for legislative candidate and 5 percent for “other meaningful criteria.” Newcomers get a sliver of help: 10 percent for being a first-time attendee to a national convention.

Once applicants are graded, the committee makes recommendations to the full state convention, which will vote Sunday to ratify the results. In that vote, party activists will have a chance to try to replace some of the committee’s recommendations with new delegates, but they will only be able to choose from among the initial pool of 105 initial applicants to do so.

According to Ken Callahan, a North Dakota GOP activist who sits on the recommending committee, the 105 applicants appear split between 50 to 60 party regulars — from state and federal lawmakers to local GOP leaders — and 50 to 60 outsiders with little history within the party.

“The newcomers don’t get selected because they don’t score well,” Haughland said of the criteria.

And historically, those picked by the party have held enormous advantage. “The odds of those people getting beat — it’s only going to happen if it’s a huge floor fight,” said Gary Emineth, a former North Dakota state GOP party chairman who’s among the applicants for the 25 delegate slots. (Three additional delegates will go as members of the Republican National Committee.)

Chuck Walen, another member of the committee, added that those newcomers are likely to wind up as alternates, who only get a chance to vote if other delegates drop out of the convention.

But while Trump faces an uphill struggle, he’s not without hope. As a former state chairman, Emineth’s history as a party insider would appear to put him on an inside track to win a spot. But there’s a twist: Emineth says he’s leaning toward Trump, impressed by the businessman’s performance so far in the primaries.

Therein lies Trump’s shot for overcoming a system stacked against him. If his supporters within the party establishment can work in concert with the new wave of outside support the billionaire brings to the convention, Trump could walk away from the weekend with more first-ballot votes than when he started.

Trump’s other hope: All the delegates (and their alternates) will be selected by weekend’s end, but the fight for their support could go on all the way through July.

Some delegates are expected to avoid pledging allegiances publicly, if they can avoid it. The better to be wooed as a free agent by all camps in the coming three months.

The lobbying campaign is well underway. One applicant, a Kasich supporter who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ted Cruz’s campaign and anti-Trump forces have been sharing supportive polls with North Dakota GOP leaders to urge them to avoid Trump at the convention. But polling in the state has been sparse and delegate applicants aren’t required to indicate their ideological views or preferred candidate at any point in the process.

This applicant called the North Dakota convention a “no-brainer opportunity” for Cruz and Kasich to pick up delegates, since it requires very few resources. Though it took millions of dollars for Kasich to win Ohio’s 66 delegates, nearly half that number is up for grabs in North Dakota at a fraction of the cost.

North Dakota’s nomination process has worked out to establishment candidates’ benefit in the past, including a 2012 contest in which the state held caucuses for voters to voice their preference. Rick Santorum emerged the winner, but the delegates were unbound, and at the convention, most of the votes went to Mitt Romney.

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