Maria Murray knew her chance of winning a coveted slot as a delegate to the Republican National Convention was a long shot, but she dusted off her political resume and put on a crisp business suit, accented with a glitter “Trump” brooch and badges, and strode onto stage Saturday to make her case.
Her one-minute speech at a district GOP convention didn’t mention that it’s been decades since Murray, 82, last worked professionally on a political campaign. Instead, she focused her message on the fact that her preferred candidate, Donald Trump, won not only the state of Georgia, but also this exurban district that sprawls far from Atlanta, and he deserved delegates to the national convention in Cleveland in July.
What she and the other Trump enthusiasts weren’t quite expecting, though, was just how organized the forces behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would be at shutting them out, keeping their names off the slate of delegates who may very likely decide the GOP presidential nomination.
“I really feel it’s just duping the people,” Murray said. “They tell us to go out and vote. Our votes should mean something.”
The daylong political wrangling that unspooled in the gymnasium at Roswell Baptist Church here was exemplary of the shadow fight that has emerged as the real race to watch in the Republican presidential primary season — an unprecedented battle, playing out in communities like this throughout the nation, as the candidates try to secure 1,237 delegates needed in Cleveland to clinch the party nomination.
The process is as arcane as it is unwieldy — a combination of backroom deal-making and small-D democracy — that only the most seasoned of policy wonks might enjoy.
Cruz has excelled at the process, wresting away delegates in states where Trump won the popular vote; Trump has dismissed the whole thing as “rigged.”
Still, Trump has redoubled his efforts, hiring Paul J. Manafort, a Washington insider and veteran of the contested 1976 Republican convention, to run his delegate operation. The Trump campaign still has far to go to catch up with the months of groundwork laid by Cruz’s aides, and Saturday’s proceedings around Georgia probably came too early to accurately assess its efforts.
I really feel it’s just duping the people. They tell us to go out and vote. Our votes should mean something.
Gaveling in the morning session here, Brad Carver, the district chairman, opened with a plea for comity among the 265 convention delegates gathered. They’d been chosen from earlier county-level meetings, from the four counties that make up the congressional district.
“The enemy is not in this room,” said Carver, an attorney and father of two, arranging a giant black-and-white poster of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton at the podium for inspiration. “We are all in this together.”
Carver nudged the several hundred conventioneers to friendlier terrain, asking them to say hello, church-like, to a neighbor, and then bow their heads in prayer.
“We’re grateful for the great interest there is in the political process,” an officiant intoned. “Help us be kind today.”
But early in the session, after the Chick-fil-A breakfast sandwiches were reduced to wrappers and crumbs, tensions ran high.
The routine task of approving alternate conventioneers to stand in for Saturday’s no-shows quickly became a proxy battle between Trump and Cruz. A show of hands blocked one of most prominent Trump supporters from participating, a foreshadowing of the rough day ahead.
“We just probably lost,” grumbled another Trump supporter.
“Don’t make me use this,” groused Edward Lindsey, a retired congressman enlisted to preside over the session, wielding the gavel. “Let’s keep in mind that the whole world is watching. Can I get an amen?”
Usually, these conventions are ho-hum affairs, with three delegates and three alternates selected to represent each congressional district at the national convention. The prestige positions are typically granted as a lifetime-achievement-type awards for party activists.
But this year, the delegates could play an oversized role in actually choosing the GOP nominee. If Trump or any other candidate fails to reach the number needed to win on a first ballot, most delegates will become unbound and able to vote as they wish in subsequent roll calls.
In Georgia, 42 delegates were being selected Saturday, three from each of the state’s 14 congressional districts. For the Marietta district, two delegates will be required to vote for Trump, and one for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, on initial balloting, since they came in first and second in the March primary.
Cruz, who came in third in this district, earned no delegates here in the primary.
Bob Shaw, the octogenarian chairman of the district’s nominating committee, acknowledged this year’s selection process was notably difficult — 61 candidates running for the three delegate slots, and three alternates, in the conservative 11th Congressional District.
His panel spent days screening them all in individual 15-minute interviews. The committee didn’t ask which presidential candidates they preferred among Trump, Cruz or Gov. John Kasich, but instead sought to award spots for those most dedicated to the party. “The workers,” Shaw said.
For delegate slot No. 1, the committee recommended a Trump supporter, longtime GOP activist Lori Pesta; but the panel’s other two nods went to backers of Cruz and Rubio, with the alternates filled by people whose loyalties similarly did not lie with Trump.
Pesta didn’t even survive the runoff. Barr clinched it.
“You work, you organize, and you earn the votes,” Barr said afterward. His advice for the Trump people? “Don’t whine.”
Murray was nominated from the floor to challenge a Cruz backer for slot No. 2, and the slight grandmother could barely reach the microphone to deliver her brief speech.
“Regardless of what you feel personally, remember what the state of Georgia voted for in its entirety,” she said, without mentioning Trump by name.
But she had no idea what she was up against: The nominee, Scott Johnson, is Cruz’s grass-roots organizer from the state. He won on first-round voting.
And so it went. Cruz’s team outmaneuvered the more inexperienced and less organized Trump backers. By late afternoon the outcome was clear, even before word leaked that the free pizza was supplied by a Cruz loyalist. Trump, who won the district overwhelmingly last month, was completely shut out.
Cruz, who did not earn any delegates here, had his people in almost every slot. Statewide, Trump started the day with three times as many district delegates as Cruz. By day’s end, he had lost almost half of the Georgia district slots to Cruz backers, according to Republican operatives in Georgia.
“It’s kind of a brave new world for all of us,” said Carver, a Rubio backer who is now uncommitted, and won the No. 3 delegate slot. “You have people saying, ‘It’s my first time ever and I want to go to the national convention.’ The old-timers kind of roll their eyes.”
The Trump team knew it would be a rough day in Georgia, and had turned its attention elsewhere, but Murray and Trump’s other backers vowed to press on.
In between her work as a travel agent and part time at a dress shop, she plans to run again for one of the 31 remaining at-large delegate positions that will be decided at the state convention in June in Augusta.
What does she have to lose, she reasons, but trying to fix the country for the family she will leave behind?
“I’m on my way out of this Earth,” said Murray.