Donald Trump has been battered in the hunt for loyal delegates to the Republican National Convention, suffering loss after demoralizing loss to Ted Cruz. But Michigan Republican leaders are closing ranks around the struggling front-runner with a stern message: hands off Trump’s delegates.
Though Cruz has outmaneuvered Trump in state after state, local Michigan GOP officials say a delegate fight that fails to reflect the results of the state’s March 8 primary — when Trump handily defeated Cruz and John Kasich — would rip the party apart. And they’re working aggressively to prevent it.
“We don’t want to be part of the carnage of the presidential campaign,” said Bill Runco, one of 14 Congressional District chairman for the state Republican Party. “Don’t play games. Just be honest about this. You know, don’t try to steal someone else’s delegates.”
Ted Cruz has been walloping Trump in the suddenly frenetic delegate selection process, beatings that have raised questions about whether Trump’s candidacy will collapse if he can’t claim the nomination on a first vote when most delegates are required to vote according to the outcome of their state primaries.
Cruz is lining up loyalists in states where Trump won the popular vote, like Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina — and those “Trojan horse” delegates could tip the nomination away from Trump when they’re no longer obligated to back him after the first round of voting at the Republican National Convention.
But Michigan, which will pick 56 convention delegates over the weekend, wants no part of the subterfuge, according to interviews with more than a dozen party leaders and campaign operatives within the state. It’s a common sentiment rooted in the state’s memories of bitter primaries past, and it’s reflected in the party’s rules, designed to prevent the type of sneak attacks that have soured the delegate process in other states.
Trump’s primary win guaranteed him 25 delegates, while Cruz and Kasich each earned 17. Fourteen delegates will be selected Saturday at statewide convention, and the remaining 42 – three apiece in each of the state’s 14 Congressional Districts — will be divided evenly among Trump, Cruz and Kasich. So far, there’s little evidence that any of the campaigns are trying to stack the Congressional district contests with their supporters.
“I’m not finding anyone who’s running insincerely,” said Jesse Osmer, who’s overseeing delegate selection in Michigan’s First Congressional District, a sprawling rural outpost that houses more than a third of the state.
Even Cruz, who’s worked the process more successfully than Trump and Kasich so far, appears content to take his foot off the gas in Michigan — so long as his rivals do the same.
“Frankly, we’re focused on making sure that we’ve got 17 solid Cruz delegates that are going to represent us well … I want to make sure that we honor the March 8 vote,” said State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, Cruz’s Michigan chairman. “If you’re a Trump delegate, you’re a Trump delegate. If we sense that any campaign is starting to play games with it, that’s when things get a little dicey.”
Colbeck said the Cruz campaign will distribute a “preference sheet” of delegate candidates in each of the state’s Congressional Districts on Tuesday. But he said any attempt to game the process would only backfire in November.
“After this is all said and done, we need their votes in a general election,” he said. Michigan has been safe Democratic territory in presidential elections since 1988, but Trump’s candidacy has resonated with many of the downtrodden industrial workers prevalent there. That’s raised the prospect of a more competitive general election fight in Michigan, even as Trump’s polarizing persona would put other Republican strongholds in play.
In fact, it was a similar episode in 1988 that crippled Republican unity in Michigan — when a brutal fight among loyalists to George H.W. Bush, Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp left bitter feelings inside the state. “Our Congressional District was in shambles for years,” said Runco.
With that history in mind, preventing a similar intraparty fracture may be the reason that Cruz hasn’t demonstrated the same level of across-the-board organization he’s used to gain delegate advantages around the country. Osmer, the First District chairman, said Trump and Kasich had clearly been the best organized in his district.
John Haggard, who’s running to be a Trump delegate from the First District and has attended five conventions since 1980, said he’s aware of five candidates who filed to be Trump delegates, two for Kasich and one for Cruz. If the convention deadlocks, he said, he intends to encourage his colleagues to vote according to the district’s popular vote – which went strongly for Trump.
Even if a campaign were interested in gaining a delegate edge in Michigan, it would be an enormously complex endeavor.
Each Congressional district will convene a caucus on Friday at 6 p.m. to name their three delegates, but each operates under widely varying sets of rules that only the most disciplined grassroots operation could decipher. Contacted by POLITICO, most district chairman said they’ve been inundated with calls from presidential campaigns primarily to understand the nuances of each district’s rules. In many cases those rules conspire, either by complexity or design, to limit campaigns’ ability to rig the process in their favor:
-In the Seventh Congressional District, for example, the delegates (and three alternates) are divided among district’s seven counties, with only one of the two smallest counties participating. District GOP chairman Hank Choate said the delegates had already been selected — and the Cruz and Kasich campaigns had already approved the ones assigned to them. The Trump campaign, Choate said, is still vetting its picks. “I know personally the two individuals are strongly in support of the candidate, just that they may not be that well known by the campaign,” Choate said.
-In the Sixth Congressional District delegates must hail from different counties to reflect geographic diversity. This year, the delegates will be chosen from Berrien, Cass and Kalamazoo Counties. And each county can set its own rules about how to identify its delegate. “Some of those counties have already engaged in that process and others are engaged in it at this time,” said Vic Fitz, GOP chairman of the Sixth Congressional District, who declined to identify which delegates had already been named.
-The Ninth Congressional District requires that two delegates come from populous Macomb County and one from suburban Oakland County. District Chairwoman Pam Williams said she’s planning to work aggressively to prevent disingenuous delegates from going to the convention because it’s happened before – in 2012, when two Michigan delegates who swore to back Mitt Romney flipped at the last second. “We have quite a few libertarian delegates it looks like when I’m looking over the list,” she said. “They were previously Rand Paul people all the way, Ron Paul people. They seem to be gravitating toward Trump.”
-In the Eighth Congressional District, chairman Tom McMillin has proposed dividing caucus-goers into three groups based on the candidate they support. The groups would be chaired by leaders appointed by each of the three presidential campaigns, and they would select their candidate’s delegate and alternate without controversy. He added that should they choose to run, Cruz Michigan co-chair Wendy Day and Trump Michigan chair Scott Hagerstrom would have an edge.
Several other districts simply require delegate candidates to file paperwork with the state party ahead of Friday’s caucuses, but those filing are often kept confidential until the caucuses are officially underway, limiting the ability of campaigns to survey the field.
Stanley Grot, who heads the Tenth Congressional District, said he has a simple process to smoke out disloyal delegates: force each candidate to speak to the group. “If somebody stands up and says, ‘I want to go for so and so,’ and someone says, ‘well how do you spell their name’ and they don’t know, you’re there as a fake delegate.”
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