After Ted Cruz dropped out of the presidential race, his campaign staffers boxed up their mementos and souvenirs as they prepared to shutter the Houston headquarters, and the Texan announced that he would seek reelection to the U.S. Senate.
Yet Cruz’s team didn't abandon the race for the White House entirely. It still filed a slate of potential presidential delegates for California’s June 7 primary, and continues to monitor delegate selection in states that already voted in the GOP nominating process.
The end result is that Cruz will have more than 550 loyalists attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July — a ground force that helps him establish himself as the national leader of the conservative movement, protect the party's conservative platform from what the senator has called Trump's "New York values," and lay the foundation for a potential 2020 presidential bid.
“Anything the Cruz delegates are planning is to keep the engine warm for 2020,” said Rick Tyler, a former Cruz aide.
It’s not unusual for candidates who failed to win the nomination to try to make a strong impression in front of top elected leaders, deep-pocketed donors and committed activists at their party’s nominating convention.
“They seek, first of all, to make sure their campaign wasn’t in vain,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution.
What is remarkable this year is the sheer number of Cruz supporters who will be in Cleveland: 566 pledged delegates, as of Thursday, as well as many more sympathetic to his cause.
The campaign’s meticulous delegate-gathering strategy paid off last week in California, where almost all of the state’s 172 delegates are awarded by congressional district. Six days after Cruz dropped out, his campaign submitted a nearly full slate of delegates in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, even though it's unlikely he will win even one district.
The move was a public recognition of his most ardent supporters in California, who began working on his behalf last summer, said Ron Nehring, the former state GOP chairman who was a top aide in Cruz’s presidential bid.
Conservative blogger Jon Fleischman is on the Cruz delegate list, and says although he does not expect to go to the convention, he would delay plans for a tropical family vacation to head to Cleveland should Cruz win his Orange County congressional district.
“It would be very inconvenient. I would have to bring anti-nausea medicine with me to Ohio,” said Fleischman, adding that he abhors Trump. “But I would go, and my primary objective would be to make sure that Donald Trump’s New York values don’t get placed into the national Republican Party platform.”
California is an outlier in asking Republican candidates to select delegates before its election. In most states, candidates are awarded a set number of delegates after voters participate in primaries or caucuses, and those delegates are later elected at party conventions.
The Cruz campaign worked these arcane party gatherings to make sure that delegates sympathetic to their cause were elected, even in states where Trump trounced them. They continue to do so, monitoring recent state party conventions in Nevada, Oklahoma, Montana and Texas. They are also still holding conference calls with campaign leaders and delegates across the nation.
The goal, said Robert Uithoven, Cruz’s western states regional political director, is not just to gather Cruz supporters as delegates, but to win the “contest within the contest” — securing spots for their supporters on four key committees at the convention: those that govern the rules, the platform, credentials and permanent organization.
All of these could aid a potential Cruz 2020 run. On rules, conservatives would like to see Republican primaries restricted to registered GOP voters. Trump, whose success has been boosted by independent voters, has lashed out against such restrictions.
The platform committee is getting the most attention because of concerns about Trump’s shifting views on issues such as abortion. Trump once supported abortion rights and opposed a ban on partial-birth abortions, but is now pro-life. In April, he said he would revise the GOP's platform to allow for exceptions for rape, incest or if the life of the mother was at stake.
“I would like my party’s platform to reflect conservative views,” said Libby Szabo, a Colorado delegate for Cruz. As for the GOP’s presumptive nominee, “I don’t know that he’s proven that. He’s kind of been all over the board. That concerns me. Who is the real Donald Trump?"
She still plans to go to Cleveland.
"We’re taking our vacation time to go to the convention. We’re spending our own money — and it’s not cheap — to go to participate,” Szabo said. “It’s part of our civic duty.”
In past elections, runners-up have also tried to extract concessions, land high-profile speaking slots, negotiate deals to pay down lingering campaign debts or enhance their standing in the party.
At the contested 1976 Republican convention, Ronald Reagan's gracious withdrawal and eloquent concession speech built goodwill among the party faithful that helped his 1980 bid. In 1988, Jesse Jackson, feeling he was shortchanged by the delegate allocation process, was able to wrangle a pledge from the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, to change the rules so all states would award their delegates proportionally.
In recent years, the also-rans on the Republican side did not amass a significant number of delegates. But they can cause a stir, as former Rep. Ron Paul’s fiercely loyal backers did in Tampa, Fla., in 2012 when they tried to put the former Texas congressman into contention for the nomination but were stymied by RNC rules changes. After party leaders refused to recognize them, they compared the convention to Nazi Germany and walked out.
This year, after it became clear that Cruz did not have a chance at winning the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination through primaries and caucuses, his delegates planned to attend in hopes that Trump would not be able to get to the number either, which would lead to a contested convention.
That dream was shattered after the Indiana primary, causing Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to drop out of the race and leaving Trump as the presumptive GOP nominee. Few Cruz backers would contemplate publicly on the unlikely notion that Trump’s nomination could still be derailed in Cleveland.
“Knowing Trump, there’s always a possibility” for mayhem, said Saul Anuzis, a senior Cruz advisor. “If he blows up, then he blows up."
The Texas senator's supporters noted that Cruz would end up with far greater support and resources compared with when he launched his White House bid 14 months ago.
“Sen. Cruz has built the largest political organization within the Republican Party, as measured by volunteers, donors and activists,” Nehring said. “Sen. Cruz’s focus going forward is winning reelection to the Senate in 2018. What comes afterward will depend on the choices Sen. Cruz makes in the future. But he has 7 million more friends behind him now than he had before he ran for president.”