Ted Cruz dominated the race for delegate seats at weekend Republican meetings nationwide, further positioning the senator from Texas to wrest the GOP presidential nomination from Donald Trump if the contest is decided on later ballots at the Republican National Convention.
In some instances, Cruz supporters won delegate seats in states that Trump won, meaning that in most cases they will be required to vote for the businessman on a first ballot. But if Trump fails to win the nomination in the first round, those Cruz supporters could switch to the senator on subsequent ballots.
The Trump campaign has assured supporters that it would begin performing better in such settings, but it still seems more focused on winning most of the remaining 15 contests through June and securing the 1,237 delegates needed before the Cleveland convention.
Trump still has a commanding lead in delegates — 845 compared with 559 for Cruz, according to the latest tally. That is likely to be padded on Tuesday, when Trump is poised to win primaries in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Given Cruz's struggles to find traction in "Acela Primary" states, he has shifted his focus to Indiana, which votes next month and is seen as the last best chance for the "Stop Trump" campaign to stop the front-runner.
Maine hosted the marquee weekend contest, in which Cruz won 19 of the 20 delegate seats up for grabs. The win sparked a feud with one of Trump's most senior Republican surrogates, Gov. Paul LePage.
The governor claimed that Cruz reneged on an agreement that would have permitted supporters of the three presidential candidates to fill the delegate seats the contenders won in the March caucus. That would have meant 12 seats for Cruz, nine for Trump and two for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
But LePage said Cruz's team "lied to us and broke the deal," adding that David Sawyer, a Cruz aide who was in the state helping the senator's supporters get elected, "stabbed us in the back, reneged on the unity slate and betrayed the Maine people."
"As we have seen throughout the country, Cruz’s national campaign is run by greedy political hooligans," he added in a state posted on Facebook. "These are the same operatives in the Republican Establishment who worked for Mitt Romney to disenfranchise Maine delegates in 2012. They are using sneaky and deceitful operators like Sawyer to try to subvert the democratic process and take all 23 delegates. I can't stand by and watch as Cruz and the Republican Establishment forcibly overrule the votes of Mainers who chose Trump and Kasich."
But Cruz aides said no agreement had been finalized.
"The guys in the state that helped win the caucus made the decision not to back [LePage's proposal] and put together their own slate," said a senior aide to Cruz who was not authorized to speak publicly about the dispute. "These are the people that represent the interests of Maine, and we're going to stand with the grass-roots activists before we stand with establishment politicians like Govenor LePage."
Trump deployed former neurosurgeon Ben Carson to woo Maine Republicans, while Cruz sent former businesswoman Carly Fiorina in his absence. A Trump supporter won a delegate slot, while LePage will be one of the state's three at-large delegates.
Republicans also met Saturday at state conventions in Utah and Kentucky while party members met in congressional districts in Minnesota and South Carolina to pick their delegates.
In Utah, another state Cruz won overwhelmingly, 36 of the 37 available delegate seats were won by his supporters. His slate includes Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Mia Love. Three more seats will be awarded to state party leaders. Cruz gets all 40 votes on the first ballot.
Kentucky's GOP also formally selected 25 delegates, including Gov. Matt Bevin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul. There was less controversy at the convention in Lexington on Saturday, given that the state party controls the selection process. On the first ballot, the commonwealth's 46 delegates will go this way: Trump (17), Cruz (15), Kasich (seven) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has dropped out of the race but will also be awarded seven delegates. Delegates are free to vote as they choose on subsequent ballots.
In Minnesota, Republicans in three congressional districts elected Cruz supporters for each of the nine seats up for grabs. The state concludes its selection process next month. Rubio won the state, meaning that he will get 17 of Minnesota's votes on the first ballot, while Cruz will get 13 and Trump eight.
And Trump again failed to have his supporters win seats in South Carolina, a state he won overwhelmingly. Cruz grabbed a delegate in the 6th Congressional District, a mostly Democratic area. So did Kasich. The third position went to a publicly uncommitted delegate who privately supports Trump, according to Republicans familiar with the contest. Trump gets all 50 votes on the first ballot.
The arcane process of picking Republican delegates continues next weekend in Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Missouri and Virginia. The contests in Arizona and Virginia are expected to be most closely watched, given that Trump won the state but Cruz and other anti-Trump forces have recruited candidates to run for open seats.