While Donald Trump charged into California ahead of the state’s critical primary election in recent days, the candidates who could deny him the nomination stepped up their efforts at the margins on Saturday, marshaling supporters to prepare for a last stand.
In a more focused appeal than Trump offered the previous day, Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, promised delegates at the California Republican Party’s convention that he is “all in.” He said he will mount a “battle on the ground, district by district by district” throughout the state.
Cruz criticized environmental policies designed to protect the Delta smelt, which he suggested he might like with “cheese and crackers.” He ripped into Trump for $12,000 in campaign donations between 2004 and 2013 to three California Democrats who now hold top offices: Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Attorney General Kamala Harris.
“Now y’all are experiencing firsthand the consequences of those misguided liberal policies,” Cruz said.
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Cruz supporters fanned out across the convention hotel near San Francisco, while John Kasich, running a distant third, held a town hall in San Jose. Their maneuvers laid bare the shape of the looming contest in California, where Cruz is relying on his superior organization to counter Trump’s populist appeal and Kasich is searching for openings in moderate areas of the state.
Five weeks before the June 7 primary, Trump continues to lead Cruz and Kasich among likely Republican voters statewide. But because California Republicans award nearly all of their 172 delegates by congressional district – three delegates each to the winner of each district – victories by Cruz or Kasich in even a small number of districts could deprive Trump of the delegates needed to secure the nomination.
“The way you game these congressional districts, somebody like Kasich has a chance at (winning) at least a third of these congressional districts,” Marty Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist, said as he walked into a Kasich reception at the convention hotel on Saturday night. “Cruz is going to do well in Southern California.”
Cruz, a favorite of evangelicals and tea party conservatives, met privately with prospective delegates to the Republican National Convention and was endorsed at a luncheon banquet Saturday by former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
“America today is in desperate need of a strong, winning Republican leader,” Wilson said, likening Cruz’s candidacy to that of former President Ronald Reagan. “And my friends, thankfully, that strong Republican leader has stepped forward in our moment of extreme need.”
It is going to be a battle on the ground, district by district by district.
Ted Cruz, Republican presidential candidate
While Trump and Kasich only recently started organizing in the state, Cruz has been recruiting supporters in California since last year, assembling a network of volunteers in every county. His national spokesman, Ron Nehring, is former chairman of the California Republican Party, and he carries the endorsement of the conservative California Republican Assembly.
Michael Schroeder, political director for the Cruz campaign in California, said the organization has opened eight field offices across the state and has roughly 10 paid staff members and 41,000 volunteers who for months have been working from home making phone calls to other states.
Schroeder, a former California Republican Party chairman, said the Cruz campaign will compete in urban congressional districts in Los Angeles and the East Bay area, where there are relatively few Republicans, and “call all of them – knock on their doors.”
I’m a Ted Cruz supporter up and down the Central Valley, and I’m a John Kasich supporter right here in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Silicon Valley.
Jimmy Camp, a California Republican operative who is coordinating with the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC
Cruz, looking to California to “decide this Republican primary,” said he will spend more money than he raises in the state.
“Year after year, y’all are used to being treated by Republicans like an ATM, to take your money and spend it in other states,” Cruz said. “Well, I can tell you right now, we’re going to spend more money in California than we raise in California.”
With national attention focused on Trump’s speech at the state convention Friday – and the protests that followed him here – Cruz supporters plastered the convention halls with campaign signs and clipboards to sign up volunteers. Cruz dispatched his father, Rafael Cruz, to campaign for him at a church in Fresno.
“They’ve been digging in California since almost the beginning, getting the grass roots going,” said John Hughes, a Modoc County Republican who is working for Cruz in Northern California.
Despite trailing Trump statewide, Cruz is running ahead of the New York businessman in Los Angeles County and conservative, inland reaches of the state, according to a recent Field Poll.
Jon Fleischman, the conservative blogger and former state GOP executive director who is supporting Cruz, said that even if his candidate falls short of the nomination, “the 58-county organization that he has created, and the number of people that he has brought out of the woodwork to get engaged or involved, will have re-energized the conservative movement in California.”
Cruz and Kasich stand to benefit in California from a stop-Trump effort that will work for Cruz in the state’s inland areas, and for Kasich among more moderate Republicans in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I’m a Ted Cruz supporter up and down the Central Valley, and I’m a John Kasich supporter right here in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Silicon Valley,” said Jimmy Camp, a California Republican operative who is coordinating with the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC.
Camp dismissed the thousands of fans that Trump drew to a rally in Orange County on Thursday and the sold-out crowd for his speech at the convention.
“They won’t make phone calls, they won’t go knock on doors, spend four hours walking precincts,” Camp said. “Holding up signs doesn’t win elections. … We’ve got 53 local races that need to be run, and that takes volunteers.”
Yet with the exception of smaller, caucus states, Cruz’s superior organization has largely failed to lift the candidate above Trump, including in New York, a large, diverse state like California where Trump pummeled the Texas senator two weeks ago.
Trump swept primaries in another five states last week, and a victory in Indiana on Tuesday – where the race appears close – could further weaken Cruz.
“He started years ahead on that (organization) in New York,” said Samuel Popkin, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, and an expert on presidential politics. “It didn’t work.”
In California, Popkin said, Trump’s persistent lead is unlikely to fade, no matter how aggressively Cruz campaigns.
“Ted Cruz is not Ronald Reagan,” Popkin said.
Trump’s campaign has moved in recent days to lay its own groundwork for the California election. Outside the amphitheater where Trump spoke in Costa Mesa last week, organizers warned supporters they could not vote for Trump in the GOP’s closed primary if they are not registered Republicans. The effort followed a robocall in which Trump urged about 1 million independent voters in California to register Republican.
I don’t know where we are in this. ...There may not be enough runway for me.
John Kasich, Republican presidential candidate
Trump supporters recruited volunteers to walk precincts and call voters at a booth at the convention, beside a life-size cutout of Trump and a sign that read, “Ground game today!”
Eric Beach, a spokesman for the pro-Trump Great America PAC, said the group has collected data on more than 1 million Trump supporters, has a goal to raise $15 million ahead of the California primary and will poll in all 53 congressional districts.
He said, “I think it’s going to be like a coronation for Donald Trump.”
Former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who is now challenging an incumbent Republican for a Southern California congressional seat, initially backed Cruz but elected not to endorse a candidate. He predicted Trump will “blow it out of the water in California.”
For the weekend, however, it was Cruz supporters in their red T-shirts who carried the largest activist presence at the convention, for 24 hours the epicenter of the presidential race. Fans on Saturday cheered Cruz’s promise to repeal the federal health care overhaul, pass a flat tax and abolish the Internal Revenue Service.
“I trust him, and I believe he’ll do the things that Reagan would do,” said Clay Moncrief, a machinist from Gilroy.
For Kasich, the reception over the weekend was thinner, expectations more modest.
He argued that Trump, if nominated, will get “crushed” in the general election in the fall.
Bill Bowen, a San Francisco Republican supporting Kasich, said he hopes the candidate will win at least two Bay Area congressional districts, but he shook his head at Kasich’s failure to catch on more broadly.
“I can’t understand why experience and electability aren’t the two criteria, and maybe temperament,” he said.
However, Bowen acknowledged that for his candidate, “the question of electability has haunted Kasich from early on. … The game for quite a while has been trying to get to an open convention, and that’s not as inspiring as trying to get to 1,237,” the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination.
At a reception for delegates near the convention hotel pool on Friday night, Kasich said he will campaign in cities unaccustomed to attention from Republican presidential candidates, including Berkeley, talking about poverty, criminal justice reform and race relations.
Even Kasich, however, appeared uncertain about his prospects.
“I don’t know where we are in this,” he said. “There may not be enough runway for me.”