When Colorado Republicans scrapped their binding straw poll as part of the state’s March 1 caucuses, it looked like they were forfeiting their relevance in the GOP’s front-loaded nomination process.
Now, they’re back in the game.
With a still unsettled three-way primary fight appearing to be headed for a contested convention in July, Colorado’s GOP assemblies over the next week offer Donald Trump and Ted Cruz a major opportunity to win a significant pile of delegates chosen almost completely by party insiders. Now, it’s up to the three candidates to convince the party to pick delegates who promise to vote in their favor.
“It’s chaos. It’s a cluster. It’s the ultimate insider’s game,” said Josh Penry, a GOP operative in Denver who chaired Marco Rubio’s campaign in Colorado. “There are so many delegates in play.”
Cruz confirmed Monday that he will attend the Colorado GOP’s state assembly on April 9. And Trump and Kasich are also tentatively planning to attend the confab of roughly 6,000 party activists in Colorado Springs, where 27 of the state’s 34 delegates to the Republican National Convention will be elected.
“We got a lot of flak when we nixed the caucus straw poll. Now, Colorado comes out looking like geniuses because we’re probably going to get all three presidential candidates to our state convention,” said Chris Murray, general counsel to the Colorado GOP.
Cruz, whose campaign prides itself on its superior organization, is eyeing Colorado as an opportunity to notch another win and, more importantly, to prevent Trump from hitting the 1,237-delegate threshold needed to clinch the nomination before July’s convention in Cleveland.
“Trump claims he’s a great closer. Well, closing in Colorado is happening on April 8 and 9,” said Congressman Ken Buck, who is Cruz’s campaign chairman in Colorado. “He’s like a batter who knocks the first pitch off the center-field wall and stands there admiring it and forgets to run to first base.
“You can make great speeches, you can insult people, you can make enemies of women and every demographic group in the country, but if you don’t close, it doesn’t matter. And Cleveland is going to be the scoreboard.”
More than 700 GOP activists are running for the state’s 34 delegate slots (34 more will be elected as alternates). Steve House, Colorado’s GOP chairman, has put all of their names, phone numbers and candidate allegiances on the state GOP website, which shows Cruz with more than 100 would-be delegates in his corner, compared to just over 70 for Trump.
“Cruz has the activists behind him, it’s pretty clear,” Penry said.
On Saturday, Cruz drew 71 percent of the more than 1,000 ballots cast in an unofficial presidential straw poll at the El Paso County GOP assembly, the largest county Republican gathering in the state. Trump, meanwhile, drew 18 percent, and Kasich won 11 percent.
“Trump has no operation here. Zero,” Murray said. “I see no evidence of organization from him. I see evidence of support; there are a lot of people who support him. There are people organizing and strategizing about slates at the county assemblies. I’ve seen no one from Trump.”
An early test of the campaign’s organization will come Saturday, as two of Colorado’s seven congressional districts — each of them elects three delegates to the RNC — hold assemblies a week ahead of the state convention.
“Our system is probably unique in the country,” Buck said. “It’s a struggle to try to keep track with basically eight elections happening over a short period. You’ve got to be organized.”
More than 300 of the potential delegates are running as unbound — opting not to declare an allegiance to any candidate and to head to Cleveland as free agents. That may change, as campaigns look to convince the activists that their best chance of getting a ticket to the convention will come from signing on to a slate of Cruz or Trump delegates.
“You win if you’re well known and people like you or you’re going to declare for a candidate and people will like that candidate,” said House. “I think the unbound delegates, if they’re unknown, will have a tough time.”
Although Cruz has no real operation in Colorado, he is benefiting from the organizing prowess of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and its preferred U.S. Senate nominee, state Sen. Tim Neville, who is likely to make the ballot with a strong showing at the April 9 assembly.
“There’s a natural alliance there between the people running the Neville campaign and the Cruz campaign,” Murray said. “There are going to be some Trump delegates elected, but I would not be surprised to see Cruz have two-thirds of this delegation officially in his pocket or tacitly in his pocket.”
Many of Colorado’s best-known Republican establishment figures who have been part of past RNC delegations, from former Gov. Bill Owens to former Congressman Bob Beauprez and one-time U.S. Senate candidate Pete Coors, aren’t even bothering to run to be delegates, opening up several slots to activists and political newcomers.
“I just decided I didn’t want to be part of the process because it is really crazy,” said former state Rep. B.J. Nikkel, who served as a Colorado co-chair for Kasich before switching her support to Rubio. “I really don’t care that much. I would support Trump or Cruz, but I don’t feel passionate about either one of them. I have other things to do than be part of a big battle.”
While campaigns would prefer that delegates head to Cleveland supporting their campaign, some establishment figures are intrigued by the idea of electing unbound delegates given the potential for a floor fight in Cleveland if anti-Trump forces opt to go to the mattresses to prevent the businessman from becoming the GOP nominee.
“Having a lot of delegates who are unbound going to Cleveland could make Colorado a kingmaker,” said Ryan Call, the former state GOP chairman, likening the delegation’s potential role at the convention to the one played by Mississippi Republicans in 1976, who went to the convention unbound and then threw their support to Gerald Ford, helping him clinch the nomination over Ronald Reagan.
“These unpledged delegates could end up being in the unique position of being part of a small pool at the national convention who are in position to be free agents on the first round of balloting and to place other names into nomination as we go on to multiple ballots.”
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