Donald Trump has a new enemy in the fight for national convention delegates: the alphabet.
Trump is well-positioned for a resounding victory in West Virginia’s May 10 primary, but his win will be accompanied by a delegate selection process stacked in favor of people with last names at the beginning of the alphabet — rather than his most committed supporters.
It’s a quirk of West Virginia’s mind-bogglingly complex delegate election process that has the Trump campaign on red alert and seems likely to leave the mogul with weaker support at the national convention than he’s expected to earn in the state’s primary. It’s yet another convoluted primary system likely to add fuel to Trump’s complaints that the rules of the Republican nomination process are rigged.
“Not even Einstein could easily understand the selection process today,” said Mike Stuart, a former West Virginia Republican Party head and chairman of Trump’s campaign in the state.
“The delegate selection system is intentionally complicated, making it extremely hard for voters to control the commitment of delegates to any particular candidate,” Stuart said. “I think the selection process for delegates in West Virginia not only is bad. It may be the worst in the country.”
It’s also bad for Trump because even if he wins the popular vote in a landslide, how that support translates into delegates depends on his supporters’ ability to navigate a complicated, arcane and confusing voting system — the results of which are an open question.
West Virginia’s Republican ballot is a six-page form that places the delegate elections behind dozens of state legislative and county races. Some voters, West Virginia GOP insiders said, stop voting before they make it to the delegates. But getting there is the easy part.
More than 220 people are running for 22 statewide slots as convention delegates. On the ballot, they’re divided based on the candidates they support and then listed alphabetically. There are 31 for Trump, 36 for Cruz and 10 for John Kasich, who failed to file a full slate of delegates. A fourth list includes 27 “uncommitted” candidates, and there are also lists of would-be delegates for candidates who have already dropped out.
Voters wishing to select a full slate of Trump delegates can choose up to 22 of them — though if they inadvertently select 23 or more, all of their choices are thrown out. They must also be aware of a new rule to prohibit more than two delegates from residing in a single county — and seven from a single Congressional district — a stipulation that isn’t mentioned on the ballot.
Yet nine of the first 22 names on Trump’s list are from populous Kanawha County, where Charleston, the state capital, is located. And if Trump voters pick them all, seven would be automatically disqualified and replaced by delegates who fit the criteria.
“Unfortunately, this will be a very random process with so many candidates for so few spots,” said Bob Miller, Jr., an uncommitted contender.
Traditionally, voters have simply selected the first 22 names associated with the candidate they support — and previous delegations have been heavy with surnames starting with A through C as a result.
“It’s really luck of the draw,” said Bob Adams, a Cruz supporter running to become a statewide delegate. “I’m the very first Cruz delegate that anyone in the state will see on the ballot.”
Stuart said the Trump campaign has a legal team ready to contest questionable results and will work overtime to ensure that voters know which Trump delegate candidates to back when they go to the polls.
Frustration is mounting in part because Trump’s allies are so bullish about his prospects in the West Virginia primary. The state’s coal-powered 3rd Congressional district is the heart of Appalachia, abutting counties in Kentucky, Virginia and Ohio that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in earlier primaries. The only recent public poll last month showed Trump with double the support of his closest rival, Ted Cruz.
Interviews and emails with more than 40 delegate candidates and West Virginia Republican leaders reveal a widespread belief that Trump is poised for a big win in the state, which supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 GOP primary and Mike Huckabee in 2008.
“The landscape in West Virginia is pretty heavily Trump,” said Ron Walters, a Trump backer who’s running to become a delegate from the state’s 2nd Congressional District. “My best guess tells me somewhere around 28 of the 34 will be Trump delegates.”
Indeed, West Virginia is shaping up to be Trump’s strongest state in a potentially bleak May, when Midwestern states like Indiana and Nebraska threaten to deliver a truckload of delegates to Cruz, his top rival for the GOP nomination. But if West Virginia’s onerous delegate process leaves Trump with less support than he earns, it lowers his odds of winning the nomination on a first vote at the convention and complicates his chances on a second.
This year, a new restriction that isn’t mentioned on the ballot could cause even greater turmoil for Trump. State Republicans decided to require geographic diversity among delegates — no more than seven statewide delegates may hail from a single Congressional district, and no more than two can come from a single county. Yet the first 22 names on Trump’s list include nine from populous Kanawha County. If voters follow traditional patterns, seven of them would be ineligible to go to the convention.
While Trump is at the mercy of a difficult ballot list, Cruz has installed a failsafe: he has recruited candidates with widespread name recognition.
“As an elected official and former Congressional candidate my name is relatively well known especially within the district,” said Marty Gearhart, who’s running to be a Cruz delegate from the state’s 3rd Congressional District., thus I think I have a good chance of being elected. I have been a delegate to the last two conventions.”
Among Cruz’s top allies is Alex Mooney, the Congressman from the Second Congressional District, who chairs Cruz’s West Virginia campaign. Mooney is running for a statewide delegate slot and will be the 24th name on the pro-Cruz list. Cruz also has support from the state’s national GOP committeewoman Melody Potter, one of three automatic delegates.
And Cruz’s backers aren’t all ready to cede the statewide contest to Trump, though most acknowledge Trump’s strength in coal country. Cruz held a fundraiser in West Virginia last month sponsored by Murray Energy, and West Virginia’s increasingly conservative lean has many voters there pining for a candidate they consider a “Constitutional conservative.”
“My case for Ted Cruz is you can absolutely trust the guy to stick to his conservative values,” Mooney said in a phone interview.
Even Cruz, however, faces difficulties due to the ballot’s complexities. His first 22 delegates are more evenly dispersed, though he too would lose five delegates for the same geographic restrictions.
That could open the door for a handful of “uncommitted” delegates – such as state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey – to make it to the convention. Recognizing that possibility, Stuart, Trump’s campaign chairman, is pleading with those uncommitted candidates to pledge support to the winner of the popular vote on May 10. So far, he’s had some luck.
“[I] will support whoever wins the WV popular vote,” said former state Republican Party chairman Douglas McKinney, an uncommitted delegate candidate, in an email.
“As uncommitted I will most likely follow what/who WV wants. I am as conservative as Cruz, but fed up as Trump,” said Kathie Hess Crouse, a candidate from Putnam County, in an email.
But a handful of uncommitted candidates expressed clear preferences. Dan Casto, for example, said he’s “firmly in the #neverTrump” camp. Kasich appears poised to pick up some support, too, from the “uncommitted” pool.
Miller said he’s leaning Kasich, and so did former state legislative candidate Bill Bell.
“I am an ‘undecided’ that will never support Donald Trump,” said Tally Reed, a pharmacist. “I have never run for a delegate position before nor have I been to a National Convention. If it comes down to Trump or Cruz, I will vote for Cruz … My preference would be Governor Kasich.”
Kris Warner, the state’s national GOP committeeman, says he’s undecided in the presidential contest, but he noted that Trump’s apparent mishandling of the delegate recruitment process could open the door to a Cruz comeback — he sees Trump scoring no more than 20 of the state’s 34 delegates.
He also noted that a deep conservative strain that’s growing in West Virginia is reflected by its leaders’ support for Cruz. “Melody Potter and Congressman Mooney are excellent representatives of the people of West Virginia. By nature, we are a conservative lot. Our faith and family are very important to us,” he said.
It’s unclear if Trump or Cruz intends to campaign in West Virginia over the next month, but supporters of both candidates said personal visits could actually sway votes.
“I think that would make a big difference in West Virginia if a candidate actually took the time to come here and campaign,” said Laura Hayes-Shiflett, a Cruz delegate candidate.
Cruz’s supporters, who saw Trump rage against the Republican establishment after losing the delegate battle in Colorado, are bracing themselves for more complaints if West Virginia’s unusual delegate selection process ends up disadvantaging him.
“It’s blaming the refs for the game after you lose,” said Mooney. “This is just the system we have.”
But Stuart, the Trump campaign chairman, said West Virginia’s delegate selection process has needed reforming for years and that they’re “designed to maintain the status quo.”
“We could well be in post-election in West Virginia a period of serious examination of ballots and voting,” he said. “It’s not an anti-Trump rule. It’s just a bad way to select a president.”
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