Trump’s campaign faces another big test in Georgia

Despite Donald Trump’s sweeping victory in Georgia, the billionaire Republican frontrunner faces the possibility that he will only wind up with a handful of state delegates that he can count on at this summer’s convention in Cleveland.

As Georgia Republicans gather Saturday to pick more than half of the 76 delegates and alternates who will attend the Republican National Convention, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seems to have a sizable advantage in the behind-the-scenes campaign to put his supporters in place.

Trump has a large lead over Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the national voting but an increasingly narrow path to pick up the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. And any of the 42 delegates he won in Georgia could essentially become free agents and back a Trump rival after the first round of voting.

Trump’s supporters complain of being blocked by party insiders at the district meetings and they’ve sent blaring alerts to allies urging them to drop everything and attend the weekend Congressional district meetings.

Cruz's campaign, meanwhile, sounds confident they will dominate the delegation. His supporters began organizing in Georgia shortly after he entered the race more than a year ago, and Cruz has won over many of Georgia's veteran GOP activists — the type who will pack Saturday's meetings — as the presidential field has winnowed.

“The folks who typically attend these are party regulars, folks who have helped build up the party,” said Scott Johnson, a top Cruz organizer in Georgia. “Those are the people who we normally depend on. And they are Ted Cruz supporters.”

The competition has put the arcane delegate-picking process that unfolds in each state squarely in the spotlight.

“It’s the first time in the modern era that the identity of the modern delegate is as important as who they vote for,” said Randy Evans, an Atlanta attorney and high-ranking RNC official. “It’s not good enough anymore to just win the primary, and hope that will dictate the outcome. Because here it may not.”

A ‘rigged’ system?

In Georgia, hundreds of activists will crowd meetings Saturday in each of the state’s 14 congressional districts with the goal of selecting three delegates and three alternates each. Another 31 statewide delegates will be picked at the party’s June convention. Three other party leaders serve as unbound delegates, free to support whomever they want.

Of the Trump rivals, Kasich’s presence will be decidedly more muted. The candidate finished in fifth in Georgia’s primary, though a few of his supporters aim to become delegates. Among them is Martha Zoller, a one-time House candidate who said Kasich called her out of the blue during the years to pray with her.

“He’s not as conservative as I am, but he knows how to get things done,” said Zoller. “He was in Congress before the GOP became big-spending Republicans and helped balance the budget, he spent a few years in the private sector and then was elected and reelected as Ohio governor and he fixed things.”

For the most part, though, Trump and Cruz proxies figure to square off around the state. W. John Wood, who chairs the Savannah-centric 1st District, expects a tough battle at his convention between two high-profile supporters of each campaign. And rumors abound about "Trojan horse" delegates at all levels.

Trump, meanwhile, has tried to frame the nominating system as a “phony deal” that disenfranchises his voters. He’s called the nominating process “rigged,” “corrupt” and a “dirty trick” in recent interviews and rallies, and his allies have raised the specter that he could run as a third-party candidate if he’s denied the nomination.

His escalating rhetoric comes as Cruz's campaign dominates the preparations for a contested convention. His supporters nailed down most of the delegates up for grabs this month in North Dakota and Iowa, and captured all 34 delegates at stake in Colorado. His campaign is also zeroing in on upcoming delegate selections in Virginia and Arkansas.

The shadow campaign

The campaign for delegates prompted Trump backers in Georgia to sound the alarm this week. State director Brandon Phillips sent an email to supporters Thursday noting that Trump carried 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties – compared to zero for Cruz, who finished in third. (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the second-place finisher, carried the other four).

“Because of this landslide victory, Mr. Trump was awarded 42 delegates,” Phillips wrote. “We’re asking that the Republican officials honor his victory this Saturday with fair representation.”

Other Trump allies complained on the candidate’s Georgia Facebook page, accusing a district chair of “stonewalling” anyone asking for rules and another of “dragging his feet” by refusing to provide necessary paperwork.

But the pleas may be too late. Most of the potential delegates were cleared in county meetings last month and in interviews over the last few weeks.

“The people who are going to be delegates are the people who have built the party, people who have taken roles for years or, in my case, decades in leadership in the Republican Party,” said Johnson, the Cruz ally. “It starts with showing up at breakfasts and setting up chairs. These aren’t people who decided last week they wanted to get involved.”

Suellan Swanson, who lives in Young Harris, is 66 and has always considered herself politically motivated. This weekend she’ll attend her first GOP district convention and run as a delegate for Trump. She knows a fight is likely, but she’s not ready to give up on the system.

“I’m really concerned. There are at least two delegates in Towns County that think Ted Cruz is the best thing since sliced bread,” she said. “But Trump carried my county. I believe what he says when he tells us he can return jobs to America. He has the strength to get things done.”

Stealthy strategy

Even some political veterans who support Trump are having trouble breaking through. Mitchell Kaye, a former GOP state lawmaker, sent an email Friday to Republican activists seeking their support to become a pro-Trump delegate.

“In 2010, we elected a Republican majority in Congress and little changed. In 2014, we elected a Republican majority in the US Senate and little changed,” he wrote. “Like many of you, I still feel in the minority, disenfranchised and that is why I am running - to again make a difference!”

Still, Trump’s camp has a backup plan.

“There are Trump people throughout the party, but they’re quiet. Some people in party leadership are scared to death to say they support Trump, and that’s where the fight is going to be this weekend,” said Seth Weathers, Trump’s former state director in Georgia. “There’s some people that would even surprise you that would vote Trump on several ballots.”

Then again, the clandestine efforts can backfire, Weathers added with a chuckle.

“They could be tricking me, too.”