After Ted Cruz dropped out of the presidential race, his campaign staffers boxed up their mementos and souvenirs as they prepared to shutter the Houston headquarters, and the Texan announced that he would seek re-election to the U.S. Senate.
Yet Cruz’s team didn’t abandon the race for the White House entirely. It still filed a slate of potential presidential delegates for California’s June 7 primary, and continues to monitor delegate selection in states that already voted in the GOP nominating process.
Cruz will have more than 550 loyalists attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July — a ground force that helps him establish himself as the national leader of the conservative movement, protect the party’s conservative platform from what the senator has called Donald Trump’s “New York values,” and lay the foundation for a potential 2020 presidential bid.
“Anything the Cruz delegates are planning is to keep the engine warm for 2020,” said Rick Tyler, a former Cruz aide.
It’s not unusual for candidates who failed to win the nomination to try to make a strong impression in front of top elected leaders, deep-pocketed donors and committed activists at their party’s nominating convention.
“They seek, first of all, to make sure their campaign wasn’t in vain,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution.
What is remarkable this year is the sheer number of Cruz supporters who will be in Cleveland: 566 pledged delegates, as of Thursday, as well as many more sympathetic to his cause.
The campaign’s meticulous delegate-gathering strategy paid off last week in California, where the vast majority of the state’s 172 delegates are awarded by congressional district. Six days after Cruz dropped out, his campaign submitted a nearly full slate of delegates in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, even though it’s unlikely he will win even one district.
The move was a public recognition of his most ardent supporters in California, who began working on his behalf last summer, said Ron Nehring, the former state GOP chairman who was a top aide in Cruz’s presidential bid.
Conservative blogger Jon Fleischman is on the Cruz delegate list, and says although he does not expect to go to the convention, he would delay plans for a family vacation to head to Cleveland should Cruz win Fleischman’s Orange County congressional district.
“It would be very inconvenient. I would have to bring anti-nausea medicine with me to Ohio,” said Fleischman, adding that he abhors Trump. “But I would go, and my primary objective would be to make sure that Donald Trump’s New York values don’t get placed into the national Republican Party platform.”
California is an outlier in asking Republican candidates to select delegates before its election. In most states, candidates are awarded a set number of delegates after voters participate in primaries or caucuses, and those delegates are later elected at party conventions.
The Cruz campaign worked these arcane party gatherings to make sure delegates sympathetic to its cause were elected, even in states where Trump trounced Cruz. Campaign officials continue to do so, monitoring recent state party conventions in Nevada, Oklahoma, Montana and Texas.
The goal, said Robert Uithoven, Cruz’s western states regional political director, is not just to gather Cruz supporters as delegates, but to win the “contest within the contest” — securing spots for their supporters on four key committees at the convention: those that govern the rules, the platform, credentials and permanent organization.
All of these could aid a potential Cruz 2020 run. On rules, conservatives would like to see Republican primaries restricted to registered GOP voters. Trump, whose success has been boosted by independent voters, has lashed out against such restrictions.
“I would like my party’s platform to reflect conservative views,” said Libby Szabo, a Colorado delegate for Cruz. As for the presumptive nominee, “I don’t know that he’s proven that. He’s kind of been all over the board. That concerns me. Who is the real Donald Trump?”
She still plans to go to Cleveland. “We’re taking our vacation time to go to the convention. We’re spending our own money — and it’s not cheap — to go to participate,” Szabo said. “It’s part of our civic duty.”
In past elections, runners-up have also tried to extract concessions, land high-profile speaking slots, negotiate deals to pay down campaign debts or enhance their standing in the party.
At the contested 1976 Republican convention, Ronald Reagan’s gracious withdrawal built goodwill among the party faithful that helped his successful 1980 bid. In 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, feeling he was shortchanged by the delegate allocation process, was able to wrangle a pledge from the Democratic nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, to change the rules so all states would award their delegates proportionally.
Ron Paul’s fiercely loyal backers caused a stir in Tampa, Fla., in 2012 when they tried to put the then-Texas congressman into contention for the Republican nomination but were stymied by party rules changes. After party leaders refused to recognize them, Paul’s supporters compared the convention to Nazi Germany and walked out.
This year, after it became clear that Cruz did not have a chance at winning the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination through primaries and caucuses, his delegates planned to attend in hopes that Trump would not be able to get to the number either.
That dream was shattered after the Indiana primary, causing Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to drop out of the race and leaving Trump as the likely nominee. Few Cruz backers would remark publicly on the unlikely notion that Trump’s nomination could still be derailed in Cleveland.
“Knowing Trump, there’s always a possibility” for mayhem, said Saul Anuzis, a senior Cruz adviser. “If he blows up, then he blows up.”
Cruz’s supporters said he would end up with more resources compared with when he launched his White House bid 14 months ago.
“Sen. Cruz has built the largest political organization within the Republican Party, as measured by volunteers, donors and activists,” Nehring said. “Sen. Cruz’s focus going forward is winning reelection to the Senate in 2018. What comes afterward will depend on the choices Sen. Cruz makes in the future. But he has 7 million more friends behind him now than he had before he ran for president.”