Marco Rubio won Minnesota decisively March 1, but the 17 delegates he was awarded are now up for grabs, free to vote for any candidate they like on a first ballot at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
In a hotly contested Republican primary that looks increasingly likely to culminate in a contested convention this summer, those delegates will be critical. The battle for them is essentially throwing states such as Minnesota, which have already held their nominating contests, back into play as they elect delegates at state conventions.
And Ted Cruz’s campaign, which has run circles around Donald Trump’s in the behind-the-scenes battle to elect friendly delegates from states that aren’t holding primaries or caucuses, is also a step ahead in the fight for the Rubio delegates who will be free to give him an extra boost on a first ballot at the convention.
Minnesota hasn’t elected its delegates yet, but the state’s Republican-party chairman, Keith Downey, is already steeling himself for blowback from Trump supporters if and when Cruz emerges from his state with the lion’s share of the delegates.
“If somebody didn’t educate themselves on that process, or they weren’t very good at working through that process, so be it,” he says. “That’s life, and that’s politics.”
Of the 171 delegates Rubio won before dropping out of the race, the 17 he took home in Minnesota, the 12 in Oklahoma, and the two he picked up in New Hampshire are now free agents. In Minnesota and Oklahoma, Rubio’s delegates are obligated only to cast a ballot for him if he is formally nominated, while in New Hampshire they’re entirely unbound.
“Our state rules say if someone is not on the ballot, they are free to vote for whomever they choose,” Oklahoma Republican Party chairwoman Pam Pollard told NBC News.
Cruz won Oklahoma handily March 1, but Rubio also received 12 delegates for his third-place showing. A Cruz campaign aide says the team has mounted a “very aggressive effort” to win over delegates in every state, including Minnesota and Oklahoma.
A spokesman for the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment about its efforts on the ground in the two states. Since both Minnesota and Oklahoma have yet to choose their delegates, they offer the campaigns fertile ground to rack up new supporters.
Cruz is taking advantage of the opportunity. Jeff Johnson, who served as Rubio’s campaign manager in Minnesota but has since endorsed Cruz, says that much of Rubio’s organization in the state has mobilized behind Cruz, helping his campaign as it works to woo delegate candidates. “That organization is still in place, we’re just kind of adding to it,” he says of Rubio’s infrastructure in the state. “We’re joining.”
The elaborate process will benefit campaigns that have extensive, well-established statewide organizations — organizations that several state Republican officials say only the Cruz campaign possesses. Minnesota Republican Party officials say the Cruz campaign is working to win over delegates, with a particular focus on those who are unbound. “There have been a number of people, either via email or at [local] conventions, campaigning specifically to be a national Cruz delegate,” says Chris Tiedeman, the state’s Republican national committeeman.
“And there have been a number of them going to other conventions, other than their own local convention, to start campaigning for those spots now.”
As it was in Colorado and North Dakota, which both elected unbound slates of delegates favorable to Cruz after forgoing primaries and caucuses entirely, it appears that the Trump campaign is being outmaneuvered on the ground in Oklahoma and Minnesota.
Several Minnesota Republican Party officials say they don’t know who is leading the pro-Trump effort in their state, and Tiedeman says there’s little to suggest the real-estate mogul is doing anything to secure unbound delegates there. “That doesn’t mean it’s not happening, but I haven’t seen it anywhere I’ve been,” he says. “And I’ve been out and about quite a bit.”
There’s a small chance Rubio could bind Minnesota and Oklahoma delegates to him on a first ballot — that is, in the unlikely event his name appears on the ballot. But even if one assumes that the RNC’s Rule 40(b) is amended to place Rubio in contention, Rubio supporters say it’s still unlikely he will appear on the ballot. (The rules currently require a candidate to secure a petition featuring the signature of a majority of the delegates from eight states in order to be nominated, and Rubio won only four states and territories.)
That’s because collecting the signatures of a majority of the delegates in the required number of states would take a strong, organized effort on the ground in Cleveland, and Rubio is unlikely to pull it off.
According to one longtime RNC member, “Just because you won a state doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have enough people in that delegate slate signing your petition. It’s a matter of high panic even when you’re Mitt Romney or George W. Bush.” It’s simply not something a non-candidate such as Rubio will do, he says, because, “Getting the petitions is still a pain in the ass and an uncertain prospect.” “It’s not going to happen,” says Johnson, Rubio’s Minnesota campaign chairman.
Rubio himself tipped his hand for the first time this week about which candidate he’d like to see win the nomination. Though he stopped short of an official endorsement, he told radio talk-show host Mark Levin Tuesday that he wants a conservative nominee and that Cruz is the only candidate left who “fits the criteria.”
In a nail-biter, his delegates may help deliver Cruz the prize.