Arizona Republicans voted nearly two-to-one for Donald Trump over Ted Cruz on March 22, handing all of the state’s 58 delegates to Trump.
But if the GOP race heads to the convention floor, Arizona’s massive haul of delegates could overwhelmingly swing to Cruz on a potential second ballot as the Cruz campaign continues to plant loyalists into the state’s delegation.
“I think Arizona is still in play – it’s the easiest way to say it,” said Robert Graham, the state’s GOP chair.
The Trump campaign is already seething at the suggestion.
“There’s no question Ted Cruz is actively working hard to subvert the will of Arizona voters and get his delegates out there,” said Jeff DeWit, Trump’s state campaign chair.
Trump beat Cruz by nearly 120,000 votes in the primary – and the 58 delegates are required to vote for him in the first round of balloting. But if Cruz nor Trump receive the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination on the first ballot, the 58 Arizonans will be freed to vote for whoever they chose.
“The delegate count [on a second ballot] will not be reflective of the vote count,” said Chris Herring, a Republican chair for a legislative district in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria. “The way the vote went in the presidential preference is not reflective of the grassroots members of the party.”
In the last week, more than half of Arizona’s legislative districts picked their local delegates to attend this month’s state convention, where the 58 national delegates will be chosen.
“We saw Ted Cruz overwhelmingly get his people elected,” DeWit acknowledged this weekend, referring specifically to a legislative district in the eastern suburb of Phoenix called Chandler.
The former GOP chair of that district, Jeff Smith, told NBC News on Tuesday that the most of the very conservative, religious Republican activists in the district voted to have Cruz-aligned delegates fill 64 of its 67 delegate spots to the state convention.
DeWit, who is aided with one paid ground staffer and volunteers, admitted to not initially “understanding how active” the Cruz team’s efforts would be in the state, saying Trump’s operation has “had to adjust our game.”
“We didn’t realize until that first meeting how hard they were to going to work to steal the delegates,” DeWit said.
That first meeting took place on March 26 in Herring’s district. Herring suggested that just 40 percent of the delegates ultimately picked in his district were loyal to Trump.
With 28 statewide delegates up for grabs on April 30 at the state convention, the implications of either candidate gaining a simple majority of state delegates could be resounding. Each of the state’s nine congressional districts will also vote and send three separate delegates.
DeWit gave a nod to the stakes of the local delegate wrangling, saying whichever campaign “has 50 percent plus one” of the delegates at the state convention will “get their slate” of delegates chosen to represent the state at the national convention in Cleveland.
Cruz’s state director, Constantine Querard, refused to hedge his bets on a Cruz walloping until next week when each of the county and legislative districts have finished selecting their delegates.
But Querard pushed back on the suggestion by DeWit that the Cruz campaign is engaging in nefarious delegate “stealing,” saying “everyone understands” the nominating process includes the selection of delegates.
“They say, ‘They’re trying to steal delegates!’” Querard disputed. “No, follow the rules – and the rules say it’s a two-step process.”
Despite likely gains for Cruz, the Trump team -- after being panned for its efforts to corral delegates in other states – is far from having yielded the state delegation to Cruz. In the last week, it has built a notable counter effort to Cruz at these legislative district meetings.
Both campaigns have sought local Republicans to run as delegates, sending targeted emails to Republicans in the districts that are likely backers based on campaign website registration, donor lists and voter identification efforts during the campaign’s primary operation.
The Trump campaign has also dominated several legislative districts and is expected to profit off of the backing of rural counties as well.
“You can’t forget those guys,” said Graham, the state party chair, about the rural voters, noting: “It’s pretty darn close right now. The reality: This is a full-frontal assault.”
Trump activist Christine Bauserman, who lives in Tucson, pointed to several southern Arizona districts, where -- despite Cruz, she said, having “been more organized” – an insurgency of new people arriving to these meetings for Trump gave the candidate several “two to one” victories in the region.
“Pretty good for a nonexistent ground game, you think?” Bauserman quipped.
Chad Heywood, the recently-departed executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, said the Cruz campaign deserves credit for its field operation because of the specific hiring of one of the state’s most prominent and connected political consultants, Constatine Querard.
“Constantine runs 20 to 30 legislative races a year for conservative candidates in conservative heavy districts,” Heywood said. “Trump has some enthusiastic leaders, but they’re not organized in those legislative districts like Constantine and his network are -- they know the grassroots.”
Cruz’s national campaign manager, Jeff Roe, is also personally tied to the state as well – his political firm ran the congressional campaign efforts of Martha McSally, who beat fmr. Rep. Ron Barber, and Wendy Rogers, who lost to Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. But the more notable client of Roe’s in the 2014 campaign cycle is DeWit, the state treasurer and the same hard-charging state chair for Trump that is now his counter.
As the grassroots prepares for its muddy melee, the state party apparatus – the governor, attorney general, party chair and the committeeman and committeewoman to the RNC – has continued to watch from afar.
“I don’t know what anyone would gain by wading into it,” said a Republican operative in the state not connected to either campaign. “I don’t see how you come out of it a winner -- there are a lot of land mines.”