Donald Trump’s struggle to win loyal delegates to the Republican National Convention grew even more desperate on Saturday, with crushing losses in Colorado and South Carolina that put victory at a contested convention further from his grasp.
Trump, who handed the reins of much of his campaign this week to strategist Paul Manafort in an effort to shore up his operation before the nomination slips away, so far has been swept out of delegate slots up for grabs at Colorado’s state convention. Adding to his woes, he picked up just one delegate of six on the ballot in South Carolina. The most painful result, though, may have been Trump’s failure to capture two of three slots in his strongest South Carolina congressional district.
In fact, Trump lost five of the six delegate seats on the ballot in South Carolina’s 3rd and 7th congressional districts. Ted Cruz nabbed a delegate in the 7th district, while another, Alan Clemmons, remained uncommitted despite Trump’s dominant finish there in the state’s Feb. 20 primary. (The Manhattan billionaire won 43 percent of the district’s vote, to Cruz’s 20 percent and Kasich’s 6 percent.) Cruz also won two of three delegates in the 3rd district, while a third — Susan Aiken, a supporter of Marco Rubio — will go to the convention as an uncommitted delegate.
At the same time, Trump so far has been swept in Colorado, which unlike most states chooses its delegates indirectly, through a series of caucuses. Cruz received a thunderous ovation in Colorado Springs at Saturday afternoon’s chaotic GOP assembly as he announced his preliminary delegate haul while Trump’s bare-bones operation struggled to get organized.
After firing the organizer initially put in charge of Colorado last week, Trump’s team hired Patrick Davis, a GOP operative from Colorado Springs, to put together a slate in an effort to win some of the delegate slots to be elected by just fewer than 4,000 party activists at Saturday’s assembly. Heading in, Cruz had already swept the seven assemblies held in the state’s congressional districts, each of which elect three delegates, giving him 21 of Colorado’s 37 delegates – a majority – before ballots hit the floor at the state convention.
And Trump’s last-minute organizing effort does not appear to be going well. The leaflet his campaign handed out listed a slate of 26 delegates. But in many cases the numbers indicating their ballot position — more than 600 delegates are running for 13 slots — were off, meaning that Trump’s team was mistakenly directing votes toward other candidates’ delegates.
Cruz now has a strong chance of picking up the 13 statewide at-large delegates chosen during Saturday’s convention, with the final three appointed automatically by the Colorado Republican Party.
“Cruz had the crowd eating out of his hand when he spoke,” said Kelly Maher, a GOP operative based in Denver. “I won’t be surprised if he sweeps this when all the votes are in.”
It’s an extension of a losing streak for Trump that threatens the mogul’s odds of winning the Republican nomination at what is increasingly likely to be a contested convention in July. Trump is close to falling short of enough support in the state-level primaries and caucuses to clinch the nomination outright, meaning his fate would be determined by delegates in Cleveland.
Yet Trump’s thinly staffed operations, even in the states he carried easily in February and March primaries, have left little organization behind to support delegate candidates. In addition to the congressional-district routs in South Carolina and Colorado, he’s been dealt setbacks in Indiana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Georgia. Massachusetts is also shaping up as a delegate battleground, despite Trump’s dominance of the popular vote there.
Trump has primarily lost delegate races to Cruz, whose superior organization, months of preparatory work and resonance among the GOP’s activist base has helped him consolidate support in the insider-oriented battle for delegates. Trump has begun mobilizing for a delegate push in recent days, empowering Manafort, a veteran of past convention battles, to lead his effort, but the 67-year-old lobbyist and political consultant is still playing catch-up.
Trump dominated South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary in a much more crowded field, earning the obligatory support of all 50 of the state’s convention delegates on the first ballot at the national convention, set to be held in Cleveland. But if Trump falls short of clinching the nomination on a first vote, these delegates will become “unbound” on a second ballot, free to support the candidate of their choice.
Trump’s lone South Carolina delegate on the day, Jerry Rovner of Pawleys Island, said he’d stick with Trump so long as it looked like he had a shot to win the convention on subsequent ballots. But he said he’s open to backing Cruz as well, though he won’t consider any other candidate, even new entrants into the contest at the convention.
“The people that put the work in, that’s who I’m gonna support. I’m going to start with Donald Trump and I’ll stay with him,” he said.
Gerri McDaniel, who won an alternate slot for Trump in the 7th District, said she was frustrated to finish just outside the top three in voting and noted that she had been sick, preventing her from actively campaigning in the delegate fight.
“If I had not have been sick — this is my fourth day out of the house — probably the results would have been quite different,” she said.
Trump was always poised to struggle to win delegates in South Carolina because the process favors party insiders who typically have rejected his brash, establishment-bashing style.
John Kasich got some good news in Michigan on Saturday, when the state’s newly elected delegation named three of the Ohio governor’s backers to crucial convention committees, including the powerful Rules Committee, which could draft convention procedures that make it more difficult for Kasich to compete if left solely to Trump and Cruz delegates. Every state gets two slots on the committee. Kasich backer Judi Schwalbach won the rules slot, and Trump supporter Matt Hall won the other, a rare double defeat for Cruz.
Cruz was also boxed out by Trump and Kasich supporters from any of the other convention committees. Kasich delegate Chuck Yob won a slot on the Convention Credentials Committee, which will rule on challenges to delegates’ eligibility to be seated in Cleveland. And Kasich delegate Yavonne Whitbeck won a spot on the Permanent Organization Committee, which — among other tasks — will elect a chairman to preside over the convention.
On Friday evening, as the scope of Cruz’s victory in Colorado was coming into view, Trump seemed to recognize his plight.
“Isn’t it a shame that the person who will have by far the most delegates and many millions more votes than anyone else, me, still must fight,” he tweeted.
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