PITTSBURGH, Pa. — John Wells says he would’ve made a perfect Pennsylvania delegate for Donald Trump — and was recruited months ago by the Trump campaign to do just that, running in the 10th district, along with a handful of others, for a shot at the national convention this July.
But he and other grassroots supporters were left off the Trump campaign’s official delegate slate, part of a strategic shift by the campaign that risks backfiring — potentially costing him both delegates and the candidate’s carefully-crafted image as the quintessential anti-politician beholden only to the people.
“I think if Donald Trump knew what was going on, he would not permit some of us getting kicked under the bus,” Wells said of the Trump campaign leaving the candidate’s grassroots supporters off their slate.
A senior adviser to top Trump aide Paul Manafort counters that the campaign is merely implementing strategic decisions to vet potential delegates and find those best suited to promote the campaign through the July Republican convention.
The adviser, speaking to NBC News exclusively, said that Trump had previously “focused on winning — he wasn’t familiar with the party rules, and didn’t see much of a need for an operation focused on this kind of thing.”
“This is the first time they’ve run a real nuts-and-bolts campaign” for delegates, the adviser said.
That nuts-and-bolts effort began just 10 days ago, when Manafort dispatched a top aide to the state to organize the effort with the two strategists running Trump’s Pennsylvania campaign. The three went to work vetting an already-established list of Trump supporters, many of them part of the grassroots effort that had been originally recruited by Trump staffers months ago when the campaign first started looking at the state, an effort that was largely abandoned. They dug into each individual delegate’s background, meeting with many personally, in some cases interviewing their neighbors and looking into their past political participation.
The campaign's research showed that the Trump campaign had in many districts more than a dozen committed or potential supporters, forcing officials to pick and choose between would-be delegates. They based their decision on a number of factors, the adviser said, including how likely the candidate was to be elected in the state, their familiarity with local party operations and whether they felt the candidate would be a good representative of the Trump campaign.
And in a signal of how significant the Pennsylvania delegation could be to the Trump campaign — and of how seriously Manafort and his team are taking the delegate effort going forward — both Ivanka and Eric Trump made individual phone calls to uncommitted delegates simply to greet them and make a personal connection.
But the official Trump slate released by the campaign appears to have left off some grassroots supporters as a strategic move, endorsing better-known names in hopes of backing the most likely winners.
In the 10th district, for instance, where Wells is running to become a delegate, all three of the Trump campaign’s endorsed candidates were not included on the grassroots slate. Two, in fact, were also endorsed in a mailer put out by the pro-Kasich super PAC New Day for America, one of whom worked on the George W. Bush campaign.
But all three — a state representative, a state senator and a longtime member of the Republican State Committee — are better-known and better-connected within the party, and likely have a stronger chance at getting elected on Tuesday.
The conflicting official and unofficial lists of delegate have Trump's grassroots supporters concerned.
“This is Trump country. This is certainly Trump country. But it does concern me about these other lists circulating,” said Gabriel Keller, a candidate for delegate in the 12th district and one of the main organizers of the grassroots slate of Trump delegates.
Keller worked for the past two months to vet delegate candidates for the grassroots slate because, he said, the delegate operation in the state was “a mess.”
“We haven’t really heard much from the campaign through the whole process,” he said.
Keller, too, was left off the official Trump slate in the 12th district, which included two candidates not endorsed by his grassroots slate who previously said they would support the winner of the district, but switched to backing Trump over the past week. One, Monica Morrill, was a candidate for Somerset County Commissioner.
“The names that are showing up on this list are politicians,” Keller said.
Wells, the grassroots supporter in Pennsylvania’s 10th district, said the back-and-forth is almost enough to turn him off from the whole process.
He’s admired the real estate mogul since the 1970s, when he says he met him a few times in passing on Wall Street, where Wells worked as a trader. When Trump finally launched his campaign last year, Wells called his office every week to offer his time.
Finally, around Christmastime, he got a call back from representatives of the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania: Would he like to run for a delegate position?
“They even helped me get my petitions signed” to run, Wells said, helping him gather over 900 signatures.
But when the official Trump campaign slate of preferred delegates in Pennsylvania came out on Friday, Wells was left off the list. He got an unexpected call from the man now running Trump’s Pennsylvania operation, Ted Christiansen, offering him little explanation for the sudden change.
“Personally, I guess my feelings are hurt,” he said.
After being cut from Trump’s official list, Wells was quickly courted by Trump’s chief rival, Ted Cruz. Wells said within hours of the official slate being released — and his name being absent from it — he received a call from a Cruz representative asking him to come to a meeting with the candidate, one of multiple calls he received from the Cruz campaign this weekend. They reached out to Keller as well.
Wells said he couldn’t be swayed. “I’m a Trumpy,” he said, through and through. But the whole experience left a bad taste in his mouth.
“The game-plan is to get Donald Trump in the White House,” he said. “I’m just a little disappointed in what Trump’s staff did to me.”