GOP leaders brace for new war of words over delegates ahead of Wyoming contest

Dan Gallo,

Wyoming Republicans gathering this weekend to pick 14 delegates they’ll send to the national convention might register as a blip on the presidential race radar – especially with all eyes on Tuesday’s New York primary – but another Ted Cruz win could re-ignite Donald Trump’s flame-throwing attacks against the entire nominating process. 

The state will hold a convention Saturday where party members – not ordinary voters – will elect delegates to the national convention. The Wyoming process mirrors that of Colorado, which was engulfed by political controversy after hosting a similar convention last week. 

Cruz’s campaign ran circles around the Trump operation there, prompting the primary front-runner to slam the multi-tiered caucus system as “rigged.” Likewise, Cruz is expected to do well in Wyoming, where his campaign has been lining up support for months.

gop20162_small1 GOP leaders brace for new war of words over delegates ahead of Wyoming contest

Trump did not actively campaign in either state, while Cruz put in face-time in both – and plans to be in Wyoming Saturday for a last-minute appeal for support.

It’s a point the Cruz operation has stressed as it continues to battle Trump’s complaints about the process, while eyeing another potential headline victory this weekend.

“To me, the ground game is starting early and starting at your most local, smallest enclave,” said Ed Buchanan, Cruz’s Wyoming chairman. Since being tapped by Cruz in February, Buchanan has been drafting activists all across the state. His efforts were bolstered by two days of Cruz campaign stops in Wyoming last August. 

“It galvanizes the conservative support for a candidate that visits the state,” Buchanan said, noting voters appreciate the attention because Wyoming is typically not in play.

Wyoming party members on Saturday will elect 14 delegates to the national convention.

It comes after a full week of Trump accusing party officials of denying him delegates by changing the rules, allegedly impeding the will of the voters.

“Over one million people have been precluded from voting!” Trump tweeted amid the complaints about the Colorado convention. At least 65,000 Colorado Republicans participated in that process, according to the Colorado GOP.

Referring to both Colorado and Wyoming, senior Trump adviser Alan Cobb said: “Candidates that have allies that are party insiders have advantages in states that have a pyramid process of selecting their delegates. These folks have worked this process for years.”

Mindful of potential accusations, Wyoming GOP leaders are ready. Their message: The rules were set long before anyone announced their candidacy.

“Every presidential candidate for the last 40 years has managed this process and has worked through this process and has followed the process that we have in Wyoming,” state GOP Chairman Matt Micheli said in an interview with Fox News. “We are simply following the rules that are in place and that have been in place for a long time.”

State party officials said they have been communicating with every campaign to make sure everyone knows the rules.

“I’ve given all the campaigns my personal cell phone and told them, if there is anything that they don’t have or that they need, to call me directly and I would do everything in my power to make sure that they have that,” Micheli said. “The state party is completely neutral. We want all the candidates to have a fair playing field.”

Republican National Committee chief strategist Sean Spicer issued a similar message in a memo on Friday about the delegate process.

“The rules surrounding the delegate selection have been clearly laid out in every state and territory and while each state is different, each process is easy to understand for those willing to learn it,” he wrote.

Wyoming is traditionally taken for granted because a presumptive nominee is usually on cruise control by the time the state votes.  Instead of burdening taxpayers with the financial responsibility of holding an inconsequential primary, the state legislature has embraced a caucus system, paid for exclusively by the parties.

At Republican precinct caucuses, voters elect delegates to county conventions. There, voters select 12 national delegates. They also pick delegates to serve at the upcoming state convention, where attendees will elect 14 more delegates – this weekend – to go to Cleveland.

“It’s a system that encourages people to be engaged and to be involved,” Micheli said. “It works.

Thus far, the system has favored Cruz, who netted nine pledged delegates at Wyoming’s county conventions last month. Trump gained only one. Marco Rubio, still in the race at the time, also secured a delegate. Another was elected unpledged.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, banking on a brokered convention, is not expected to fare well in Wyoming. But his campaign will still be meeting with delegates in hopes they can convince them to eventually vote for Kasich beyond a first ballot in Cleveland. 

“We’ve done things quietly ahead of coming here … that put us in a good position,” Kasich senior aide Merle Madrid said.

Cruz will address Wyoming Republicans at the convention Saturday.

Late Thursday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin dropped her plans to address the convention on Trump’s behalf. The campaign cited a scheduling issue and hopes to replace her with another Trump surrogate.

Kasich will dispatch Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to represent his campaign.