Ted Cruz and John Kasich couldn’t count on voters to stop Donald Trump’s march to the Republican presidential nomination. So they took it on themselves to forge a highly unusual alliance that already shows signs of backfiring.
Within hours of announcing a nonaggression pact, ceding different states to each other, Texas Sen. Cruz and Ohio Gov. Kasich were differing Monday over its terms, and Trump was seizing on the collaboration to suggest what’s wrong with Washington.
“If you collude in business or if you collude in the stock market, they put you in jail,” Trump roared at a campaign stop in Rhode Island on the eve of five Eastern primaries. “But in politics, because it’s a rigged system, because it’s a corrupt enterprise, in politics you’re allowed to collude.”
Undeterred, a Republican familiar with discussions between the two camps said they might look to extend the agreement to California and its climactic primary on June 7, depending how it worked in Indiana, Oregon and New Mexico.
Most of California’s 172 delegates will be awarded on a winner-take-all basis in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, making any sort of coordination between Cruz and Kasich, who lag far behind Trump in election victories and pledged delegates, a more difficult feat.
The alliance, announced Sunday night, was another surprising development in a campaign full of twists.
It is far from clear the effort will succeed. Similar attempts against the New York real estate developer have repeatedly foundered.
Katie Packer, who heads a political action committee, Our Principles PAC, that has spent millions trying to thwart Trump, was delighted with his rivals’ noncompete agreement.
“The best antidote to Trump is one strong alternative,” rather than two of them splitting the vote, Packer said. “In some places that is Cruz; in others it’s Kasich.”
But some — and not just Trump — saw the move as playing to the worst suspicions of disgusted voters.
“It’s a terrible message,” said John Brabender, a GOP strategist who managed Rick Santorum’s upstart 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney and has stayed neutral in this year’s party contest. “People look at that and it’s like, ‘We’re no longer running with a message of a vision for the future. We’re running as an obstructionist candidate.’”
But if the move had a strong whiff of desperation, Cruz and Kasich were clearly willing to ignore the scent.
“I’m more concerned about Hillary Clinton crushing Donald Trump in a general election and sweeping Democrats to control of the U.S. Congress” than a backlash over candidate collusion, said John Weaver, Kasich’s chief strategist. “I think it’s important we get to a multi-ballot convention so we can put together a ticket that can beat her.”
Under terms of the noncompete agreement, Kasich promised to “give the Cruz campaign a clear path in Indiana,” which offers 57 delegates on May 3, while Cruz vowed to stand aside for Kasich in Oregon on May 17 and New Mexico on June 7. The two states have a total of 52 delegates at stake, making the accord a near-even swap.
But the deal was quickly mired in confusion.
Speaking in Indiana, Cruz described the accord in practical terms. “That is a decision, an allocation of resources, that makes a lot of sense,” he said.
But at a Pennsylvania stop, Kasich insisted he was not surrendering his Indiana supporters to Cruz.
“I’ve never told them not to vote for me. They ought to vote for me,” Kasich told reporters at a diner near the Philadelphia airport. “But I’m not over there campaigning and spending resources.”
Outside groups contributed to the confusion.
The deal between rivals came as Trump was poised to sweep the primaries Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island after his landslide home-state win last week in New York.
Not surprising, some Trump backers were outraged at the Cruz and Kasich compact.
“It’s an insult. It’s going against everything people want,” said Angelina Burger, 46, a surgical technician and one of thousands who lined up early outside a Trump rally Monday in the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester. “The Republican establishment is willing to disrupt their party even more just to prevent Trump from getting in.”
Others merely shrugged off the tag-team effort.
Craig Lacedra, who showed up for Trump’s Rhode Island rally in a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap, two Trump 2016 buttons and a Boston Red Sox bomber jacket, called the alliance “wrong” and “unethical” but ultimately irrelevant.
“I think he’s going to have enough delegates to take it on the first ballot,” said the 47-year-old from Revere, Mass., who voted for Trump in his state’s primary and is volunteering in Connecticut and Rhode Island. “He’s just the man for this time and it’s like a perfect storm for him to become president of the United States.”
Barabak reported from San Francisco and Mehta from Warwick, R.I. Times staff writers Cathleen Decker in Philadelphia, Michael Finnegan in Los Angeles, Kate Linthicum in West Chester and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.