On March 1, Donald Trump finished first in Georgia’s Republican presidential primary with 39 percent of the vote.
On Saturday, at gatherings of Republican activists meeting by congressional district, the billionaire may have lost most of the delegates that were supposed to come with that March victory.
Across the state, 14 GOP conventions were tasked with electing 42 of the 76 delegates who will go to Cleveland for the July national nominating convention. Each district chose three delegates and three alternates.
In the 11th District, which stretches from Buckhead into northwest Georgia, backers of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz swept up most of the delegate slots. Trump loyalists were skunked.
At the Sixth District gathering in Alpharetta, the Trump campaign salvaged one of the three delegate slots, but lost the rest. Two supporters of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who garnered less than 6 percent of the primary vote, were named alternate delegates.
Elsewhere, Trump’s forces struggled. Debbie Dooley, a tea party organizer and Trump ally, was defeated in her delegate bid at the Seventh District gathering. Several Trump supporters soon bolted the convention - taking the American flag with them.
Brian Jack, Trump’s national delegate director, said the campaign fared a bit better elsewhere. It locked down two delegates in the Second District, one at the Fourth District, and one in the 14th District.
"This is a very insider-driven process, so it’s naturally difficult for outsiders to affect the outcome," Jack said. "We are investigating concerns of delegate suppression in a few Congressional district conventions, as we want to ensure everyone was treated fairly."
He said the campaign "did better than most expected in Georgia, earning a majority of supporters within our delegate slots." Republican operatives estimate Trump, at best, nailed down 12 to 14 delegates. Even then, that's only around one-third of the delegates up for grabs. Cruz's organizers, meanwhile, say he notched at least 32 delegates on Saturday.
All in all, Saturday’s showing doesn’t bode well for Trump forces at the state GOP convention in Augusta on June 3 and 4, when the remaining 31 delegates and alternates will be chosen.
The 11th District gathering
In the 11th District, represented in Congress by U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, Trump won 35 percent of the vote in the March primary. Rubio finished second with 30 percent. Cruz finished third with 23 percent.
On paper, the convention’s task was to pick the two delegates awarded to Trump for his district victory, and one delegate for Rubio – who has suspended his campaign.
In reality, after five hours, the convention sent two hardcore Cruz supporters to Cleveland: Scott Johnson, a former Cobb County GOP chairman and head of Cruz’ grassroots effort in the 11th; and former congressman Bob Barr, who has been campaigning across the country for the Texas senator. The third delegate, Brad Carver, is chairman of the 11th District GOP and so is formally neutral.
The three will sign pledges to support Trump and Rubio in a first round of voting in Cleveland. Thereafter, their votes will be their own.
In five votes for delegates and alternates at the Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, overt Trump supporters were defeated. Trump forces didn’t compete in a sixth – Cobb County GOP chairman Rose Wing was elected by acclamation.
“So this is how it goes. [Trump] took Georgia. He took Cherokee County. He took the 11th District,” said Lori Pesta, chairman of the Trump campaign in Cherokee County, scanning the church gym. “So this is amazing. Where did these people come from?”
Pesta’s name was originally on a slate of three delegates and three alternates proposed by a nominating committee – the only Trump supporter on the list that was geographically weighted among Cherokee, Cobb, Fulton and Bartow counties.
However, that peace offering was lost when convention delegates upended the process in favor of slot-by-slot elections. Many Trump supporters – new to the process and overestimating their own strength in the hall – were among those who favored the individual contests.
“It was debated whether we wanted to support the slate or not. But there were many people who wanted to come out and challenge those individuals. After I saw what was happening, I wanted the slate. But a majority of the other people didn’t,” she said. “The majority of our people were newbies. They had not been through the process before.”
The Sixth District gathering
The Sixth District gathering was another sign of the Cruz campaign’s organizing powers in the vote-rich conservative north Atlanta suburbs.
In the March primary, the Texas senator finished third here, too – behind Rubio (39 percent) and Trump (28 percent). The Sixth was to pick two Rubio delegates and one for Trump.
Saturday’s meeting, held in Alpharetta’s Metropolitan Club, featured dozens of delegates tapped at last month’s county GOP meetings – including a few wearing Trump’s tell-tale red hats.
As the proceedings soon revealed, they were vastly outnumbered. As in the 11th District, Trump supporters challenged the slate of delegates picked by the district’s organizers, which included veteran political operatives and several rising stars who supported Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. They were cheered on by Sue Everhart, an influential former state GOP chair and Trump backer who was at the meeting.
Trump backers Michael Opitz and former state Rep. Mitchell Kaye were both routed in their challenges but Bruce Levell, an outspoken Trump supporter who is helping lead his minority outreach efforts, narrowly defeated a Cruz supporter for the third delegate slot.
“There’s no mistaking who I am,” said Levell, who urged the party faithful to support at least one Trump backer for the open slots. “At the end of the day, I’ll vote Republican because that’s all I’ve ever known. You will know what you get with me.”
Also telling: Two Kasich supporters locked up alternate seats in the contests.
The meeting, like most GOP gatherings, was punctuated by calls for unity by party elders.
“Many of our fellow Republicans are angry. And angry is a negative attribute. It isn’t successful,” said Attorney General Sam Olens. “After we leave the convention in Cleveland, if we leave and we’re angry, we lose. We might as well start saying President Clinton.”
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