(CN) – A month after effectively crushing his competition in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Donald Trump found himself losing ground in the state on Saturday through what one longtime political observer called “a coordinated national effort to deny Trump the nomination.”
In February’s primary, Trump won all but two of South Carolina’s 46 counties, and was awarded all 50 of the state’s delegates to the Republican National Convention.
But on Saturday, as the process to fill those delegate slots got underway, it was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, third place finisher in the primary who was the big winner, taking four of the first six delegates seats filled at congressional district meetings in Florence and Greenwood, S.C.
Trump managed to have one of his supporters elected to a delegate seat, and the one remaining delegate chosen, a supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio, who suspended his campaign, said she will go to the convention uncommitted.
“It’s depressing,” said Will Folks, a one-time spokesman for former Gov. Mark Sanford and founder of the controversial, but always entertaining South Carolina political blog FITSNEWS.
Folks, who freely admits he believes the GOP needs to implode and be born anew as a “true pro-free market, pro individual” party, endorsed Trump before the South Carolina primary.
“But that was less about Donald Trump than about hastening the demise of a party I think has been lying to people for too long,” he told Courthouse News.
“However, whether you like the guy or dislike the guy, are we now at a point where votes don’t matter in this country?” Folks asked.
” I think it’s sad, frankly, and I think it’s bringing the Republican party, as we know it, to its day of reckoning,” he continued.
Folks believes it’s entirely possible that Cruz’s apparent success at securing delegate loyalty in South Carolina will prove as ephemeral as Trump’s popular-vote success in the primary. He also suggested the drum beat for an alternative to both men likely Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is growing ever-louder.
“I hope they do have a contested election where they name Paul Ryan the prom king and [South Carolina Gov.] Nikki Haley his prom queen,” Folks said. “I think it will be the death of the Republican party as we know it, and you know what? It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people.”
“There’s plenty of stuff I don’t like about Donald Trump, but say what you want about him, a lot of people voted for him,” he continued. “We’re only three-quarters of the way through the primary process and he’s already received more votes than Mitt Romney got in the general election of 2012 and he’s going to end up getting tons more.
“At the same time, he’s bringing new people into the process, so I think it’s absolute insanity for [the Republican establishment to be doing what they are doing,” Folks said.
Republican committees in all the states that have already held primaries and caucuses are now deep into the procedurals that determine who among their loyal members will travel to Cleveland this summer for the Republican National Convention and cast their vote in theory based on the popular vote in their state for the eventual nominee.
In South Carolina, this past weekend marked the beginning of a month of congressional district meetings which will elect 47 of the state’s GOP delegates. (The other three are party leaders who are automatically appointed delegates.)
The procedure is not new, but the intensity of the battle for delegates this year is extraordinary so much so that Paul Manafort, Trump’s newly-hired convention manager, went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday and accused the Cruz camp of engaging in “Gestapo tactics” and bullying delegates to his cause.
“The process is not fundamentally different from what we’ve seen in the past,” Folks said. “It’s exactly the same basic set-up as in past years, with local conventions followed by state conventions and even the rules by which delegates are selected is not materially different.”
“What’s happening is a coordinated national effort, with party insider types doing the organizing … and they are using the established process to finds way to deny Trump these delegates,” he said.
“What’s interesting are some of the plans that were in place had he gotten to the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination,” Folks continued.
“One of the plans, I’m told, was that had he gotten to 1,237, an amendment would have been proposed that said, if you were a state that held an open primary one where Democrats could theoretically cross over and vote in the Republican contest then your delegates wouldn’t be counted on the first ballot.”
The alleged plan rested on the theory that a lot of independents and conservative Democrats supported Trump in these states including South Carolina and that anti-Trump delegates would be able to bring it to pass by controlling the rules and credentials committees at the convention in Cleveland.
“Now that it looks like he’s not going to get to 1,237, it appears the party establishment is going to rely on all this bound and unbound delegate stuff, and on their being more than one ballot,” Folks said.
But Folks rejected Manafort’s suggestion that the Cruz campaign is relying on “Gestapo” tactics.
“There is nothing secret about what they are doing. They are electing Cruz supporters to these delegate positions who will bail on Trump after the first ballot,” he said. “That’s what’s happening. There’s nothing illegal or covert about it. It’s not a conspiracy.
“It is obvious that on the first ballot, all of South Carolina’s 50 total delegates will vote for Trump. And on the second ballot, he’ll be lucky to get four or five,” Folks said.
“And this is happening in the open. It is happening in front of everybody. It is happening according to established rules. But what it is, is the effective disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters,” he said. “What’s going to be especially galling is if at the end of the process, it results in the denial of both Trump and Cruz which is what I think is going on with the Paul Ryan push.
“I mean, just speaking of South Carolina … the Republican establishment struggled to get a third of the vote here in the primary. Trump and Cruz and Ben Carson the outsiders cleaned up here. Yet it is the Republican establishment that’s going to pick the nominee. How is that fair?” Folks said.
As bad as things were for Trump in South Carolina, they were even worse in Colorado, where the delegate selection came to a head on Saturday. Cruz got all 34 of the state’s elected delegates, and Trump was able to secure only six alternate spots.
As has been seen elsewhere, Cruz’s effort in Colorado was slow and steady he’d had a delegate campaign underway in the state for months.
Before Saturday’s gathering of the Colorado GOP even got underway, the senator had swept all seven congressional district assemblies, and walked into the event knowing he had at least 21 of the state’s total delegates.
Meanwhile Trump’s delegate effort was in complete disarray, party officials said.
Last week, Trump fired the operative he’d put in charge of the Colorado delegate team, and replaced him with Patrick Davis, a more experienced hand from Colorado Springs. The change at the top, however, proved to be too little too late.
On Saturday, Trump backers handed out flyers at the convention site naming the campaign’s slate of 13 delegates and 13 alternates, accompanied by their three-digit number position on a ballot listing the names of over 600 potential delegates.
But seven of the 13 numbers listed next to Trump supporters directed state convention voters to the wrong delegate spot. In at least one case the bad number corresponded to a Cruz supporter.
The result shades of the 2000 presidential election in Palm Beach County, Fla., where a poorly designed ballot had supporters of Democrat Al Gore voting for Republican Pat Buchanan was that the campaign piece may actually have directed Trump supporters to vote for the wrong delegate candidates.
A second leaflet was rushed onto the convention floor, but it too contained errors, mismatching four names and numbers, misspelling others.
The two debacles followed similar instances of the Trump campaign grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory in Georgia, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Tennessee.
However, this weekend wasn’t a complete horror show for the Trump delegate campaign. Michigan proved to be a singular bright spot for the team, where it was able to completely shut Cruz out of the race for delegate committee positions.
But in Michigan, things got pretty hairy on the road to a win.
According to the Cruz campaign, it had a deal with Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s delegate team to block Trump and spit the eight delegate slots for key committee assignments.
But at the last minute, Michigan Cruz leader Saul Anuzis said, his team was double-crossed by the Kasich supporters, who he accuses of cutting a closed door deal with the Trump team and casting their lot with it.
“We had an agreement with the Kasich folks to vote for each other’s delegates to be members of the various committees to insure some form of equitable representation,” Anuzis told Courthouse News.
Instead, he said, “ John Kasich has decided to bypass any attempt to blur his rationale for staying in the race, and is now openly auditioning for Donald Trump’s Vice President slot.”
“That’s the only possible reason for him to instruct his campaign to join forces with Trump for votes on convention committee assignments,” Anuzis added.
Kasich’s Michigan delegate director, Jeff Timmer, said it was the Cruz campaign that broke the deal, trying to win all eight delegate committee seats for itself.
In an email to Courthouse News on Sunday, Timmer framed what happened this way:
“In Michigan both the Trump and Cruz campaigns were behind the curve. The results show it was The Kasich campaign who was able to best maneuver through the Michigan delegate selection process,” he said.
But Anuzis rejected any suggestion the Cruz campaign tried to do anything underhanded after making a deal with the Kasich team.
“That’s a silly assertion,” he said.
“We never tried to take all the slots because we only had 17 of the 59 votes,” Anuzis said. “We need to have a cooperative deal like happened in the districts and with the at-large slate.
“To be clear, the Cruz campaign maintained all of their convention delegate spots in Michigan,” he added.
Emmalee Kalmbach, a spokeswoman for the Kasich campaign, said speculation about the governor having made a deal to be Trump’s vice president is “an absolutely ridiculous rumor spread by Cruz’s folks.”
“Look, they showed up to a convention thinking they knew who their base was and who their delegates were, only to find out that their heavy-handed approach backfired and resulted in their being left empty-handed,” Kalmbach said.
“As a result, they didn’t wind up getting any spots on the convention committee and we were able to secure three key spots for this July,” she said.
Asked to provide an example of the Cruz campaign’s so-called heavy-handedness, Kalmbach pointed to the North Dakota state GOP convention two weeks ago where “he had people right out of the gate, from the floor, make a nomination to put a delegate’s allegiance on the ballot.
“That violated party protocol, and it was shot down,” she said. “So going into these conventions and thinking they can change the party’s rules and procedures through tactics like exposing who’s with who and otherwise bucking the party … that’s not something we’re interested in doing at all.”
Kalmbach said the Kasich campaign has “dozens of staff” working the various state conventions around the country, along with scores of volunteers, and the one thing that can be said of all of them is they show up intending to abide by the party rules and bylaws that have been established.
“Obviously, we want to play by the rules, we want to make sure the process is as straightforward and easy as possible, and in doing so, we strive to know our base and secure the delegates who are committed to Kasich,” she said.
Kalmbach joined the Kasich campaign in December and worked several of the primaries before turning much of her attention to the delegate hunt and other preparations for the convention.
“Right now, a lot of things are happening at once,” she said. “We obviously are still concentrating on the upcoming primary contests there’s a lot of attention on the east right now, but already got teams in place in California and other states that vote on June 7 and then there’s this whole delegate selection process going on.”
Reaching for her calendar, Klambach started reeling off names.
“We’ve got state conventions in Georgia, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and New Mexico, and congressional district elections in Kentucky, South Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Florida,” she said. “And that’s just this coming weekend.”
“The thing is, you have to put in the time and prepare for those, and I think it’s clear that we have,” Klambach said, adding that by comparison, “it’s clear that Trump is scrambling.”
“It’s now obvious he has no infrastructure or base or foundation to deal with these conventions, and as a result, he’s had a few pretty tough weeks,” she said.
In South Carolina, Folks says it’s high time the whole process is overhauled.
“I’ve felt this for a long time,” he said. “If they are going to have these partisan primaries and if the two parties are going to have this unfair electoral advantage in all 50 states, I think they should just do it all on one day, nationwide.
“Have a national primary day where whoever gets the most votes is your nominee. That would put a bit more fairness back into the process,” Folks said.
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