Down in the polls and with zero margin for error heading into Tuesday’s crucial Indiana primary, Ted Cruz could be forgiven for seeing a silver lining in his apparent strength with unbound Republican delegates. Until Donald Trump’s romp through the Northeast last Tuesday abruptly changed the subject, the political world was captivated — and Trump supporters were infuriated — by the Cruz campaign’s successful effort to elect large blocs of friendly delegates at a series of state-party conventions.
But friendly delegates are as subject to shifts in the race’s momentum as anyone else, and Cruz’s strength with some of these crucial first-ballot convention voters may be overstated — particularly in North Dakota, where his campaign declared victory after filling 18 of 25 unbound delegate slots with its chosen candidates at the April 3 convention. Those delegates are vital to Cruz’s quest to deny his rival the 1,237 delegates he’ll need on the first ballot in Cleveland. But as they’ve watched Cruz struggle to tread water in a primary increasingly dominated by Trump, many of them, wary of a bitter convention battle that could rend the party at its seams, are rethinking their commitment to the Texas senator.
He’s not alone. Of the ten North Dakota delegates on the Cruz slate reached by National Review, five express serious reservations about backing the Texas senator on that crucial first ballot.
“I have to admit I’ve been vacillating,” says David Hogue, a state senator and Cruz-approved delegate who insists he’s “firmly uncommitted.”
Hogue’s senate colleague Dick Dever is also getting cold feet. “What I have said is I’m leaning towards Cruz, but I’m not committed to anybody,” he says. “And after [Tuesday’s vote], I think Trump has the momentum going forward.” Dever was impressed by the way Trump broke fifty percent in all five of last Tuesday’s primaries, after relying on pluralities to propel him to victory in previous contests. And he finds it just as telling that Cruz lost to John Kasich in all but one of those contests. “I think that was a real shift,” he says.
With Trump on a winning streak that’s seen his popularity and electoral success continue to grow past the long-assumed “ceiling” of 35 to 40 percent of the Republican electorate, many North Dakota delegates who privately support Cruz are rethinking the wisdom of challenging the real-estate mogul’s commanding lead on the convention floor. Rick Becker, a former North Dakota gubernatorial candidate who is still loyal to Cruz, says one delegate who he believes would like to support Cruz is nevertheless warning peers about the damage they could do to the party’s November prospects by angering the millions of voters who support Trump.
“Yes, you’re unbound, you can vote for whoever you want,” says Becker, explaining the delegate’s worries. “But if Trump gets really close, should you even ignore your wishes, ignore your congressional district’s wishes, and just vote for Trump to try to salvage the Republican party from being torn apart?”
Jessica Unruh, another state senator elected on the Cruz slate, admits that argument is the “underlying reason” why she is now reconsidering her options. “That’s why I’ve been supportive of Cruz and not fully committed to him, because I would not want to see that happen to the Republican party,” she says.
But even then, the senator’s much-vaunted delegate ground game wasn’t perfect.
Clare Carlson, one of the delegates elected on the Cruz slate, says he’s never supported Cruz, and any belief to the contrary was a misunderstanding on the part of the campaign. “North Dakota’s a small state, we all know each other,” he explains. “You know, sometimes people make assumptions, and it’s not always accurate.” He says he hasn’t heard much from either the Trump or Cruz campaigns since the convention — a sentiment echoed by some of his fellow delegates.
Though Cruz’s team does seem to be paying more attention to the state’s delegates than the Trump campaign, which only recently restarted outreach operations in North Dakota after last month’s convention, they may still be missing opportunities to shore up badly needed support. Hogue, for example, says he won’t make up his mind until he’s talked to all the candidates, and wonders why he hasn’t yet heard from the Texas senator. “I know one of my colleagues, Senator Dever, got a call from Cruz apparently,” he says. “So yeah, I would welcome those calls.” (The Cruz campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)The wavering of some erstwhile Cruz backers in North Dakota raises the stakes of Tuesday’s Indiana vote. With unbound delegates warily eyeing recent primary results, there’s little chance Cruz will be able to stanch the bleeding without decisively halting Trump’s surge. Even if he does win in Indiana, Cruz will need to prove he can keep on winning, in California and elsewhere, to satisfy delegates who may personally prefer him to Trump, but are worried about throwing the party into chaos before the general election.
Right now, many unbound delegates would rather present a united front against the Democrats in November than work to stop Trump in July.
“No matter what happens in Cleveland, I am in the ‘anybody-but-Hillary’ camp,” says Poolman. “The most important objective is to get a nominee and unite the party.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter at National Review.