How Zombie Ted Cruz Already Beat Trump in Washington

Washington primary results aren't yet in, but Trump already lost it to a candidate who dropped out weeks ago

Forty of Washington state's 41 delegates at the Washington state Republican convention this past weekend went to Ted Cruz. Credit: Nam Y. Huh/AP

Ted Cruz isn't running for president anymore, but his zombie campaign lumbers on. At the Washington state Republican convention this past weekend, the state party managed to install Cruz loyalists in 40 of the 41 available delegate slots to this summer's Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

What's more, the Washington Republican primary was still a few days away; the polls are open in the state Tuesday, and results won't be known until at least Tuesday evening. Every state party has a different and complicated set of rules governing how delegates to the national convention are selected, but it's highly unusual for all of the delegates to be selected before the state votes, and even more unusual for almost all of those delegates to be supporting a candidate who is no longer in the race. 

It is exactly the kind of thing Trump — back when he still had a rival for the nomination — would have railed against as evidence the system is "rigged" against his bid. But it's not part of an establishment conspiracy to snatch the nomination from under him; it's just embarrassing proof that team Trump has failed to execute some of the most basic functions required of a competitive presidential campaign. 

By all accounts, this year's state convention wasn't nearly as contentious as 2012's, when supporters for Ron Paul mounted a fierce challenge to presumptive nominee Mitt Romney. "That was — I guess I would call it 'fiesty,'" Charlie Crabtree, chair of the Whatcom County Republicans, says with a chuckle. "It was a little more divisive at the end of the day."

If no one was fighting him in the state, how did Trump end up losing Washington's delegates?

Cruz was able to win the vast majority of the Washington delegates because, when his campaign still existed, staffers put together lists of their preferred delegates — a state convention voters' guide. The Trump campaign (and the Kasich camp, for that matter) didn't perform this extremely basic task. "I never saw a slate for Trump candidates," Crabtree says. 

Paul Hess couldn't find one either. "Donald Trump was holding airplane hanger rallies, big rallies… [but] he really didn't have a ground game here in Washington state," says Hess, a national delegate and a Cruz supporter.

The Cruz campaign, meanwhile, had spent a year marshaling support at the local level and wasn't ready to let all that work go to waste. 

"When our candidate dropped out that Tuesday night in Indiana, we had two choices." Hess says. "Go home… or keep going, even though we didn't have a candidate. [It was] kind of like El Cid — the guy's riding on the horse and he's dead, but the battle goes on."

The Cruz delegates are marching on, hopeful they'll be able to influence the party platform and the rules that will govern the 2020 primary. "That does not mean we're going to boo, turn our backs, disrupt the convention in Cleveland in any way," Hess says. "We were just very organized, and the other campaign didn't have a ground game."

Crabtree agrees. "Our job is to elect Republicans," he says. Trump isn't his preferred candidate, but, he says, "it's a great opportunity to bring new people into the party."

Hess says he speaks for the vast majority of his fellow Cruz supporters when he dismisses out of hand the prospect of a last-minute rule change that could allow them to vote for Cruz on the convention's first ballot. "We have no illusions about that at all," he says. "Trump will be the nominee. We are realists."

If that possibility exists, Joel Mattila, the lone Trump supporter elected as national convention delegate this weekend, isn't worried about it either. "In my conversations with other Cruz delegates, who are friends of mine, they pretty much have said that Mr. Cruz wouldn't accept the nomination that way anyway," he says.

Resigned as they are to support Trump's bid, Hess and the other Republican delegates have concerns that Trump's failure to organize in Washington — and in states where he has made similar unforced errors around the country — does not bode well for his prospects in the general election.

"Hillary could spend a lot more money and be a lot more data-driven and have much more of a ground game," Hess says. "Of course we're worried about that. But Trump is Trump: He has a very different style in the way he connects with people."

To someone like Mattila, that's precisely his advantage. "He doesn't poll-test every little statement he makes, he doesn't run every position through a focus group," he says. "Love that."