Metro

Battle for Mass. GOP convention delegates intensifies

Donald Trump supporters celebrated at his Massachusetts headquarters in Littleton after he won the state primary on March 1.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file
Donald Trump supporters celebrated at his Massachusetts headquarters in Littleton after he won the state primary on March 1.

Donald Trump, often boastful of his talent for brilliant deals, could get a raw one from Massachusetts.

Trump won an overwhelming victory in the state’s Republican presidential primary last month, his largest to date. But it could be Ted Cruz, who finished a distant fourth here, who ends up with a plurality of Massachusetts delegates after convention balloting this summer. Some Republicans, unhappy with either choice, still hold out hope for an alternative candidate, but none has emerged.

Senior state Republicans say jockeying for delegates and votes has intensified in the last few weeks. Cruz backers and unaffiliated establishment Republicans are angling for delegates who would be willing to switch from Trump if he fails to prevail in the first round of balloting at the GOP’s July convention in Cleveland.

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Most of the 42 delegates who will attend the convention will be picked at April 30 state caucuses, and the lobbying is likely to further intensify between now and then.

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One senior party strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he expected some delegate candidates to claim to be Trump loyalists, but actually plan to vote for Cruz or another contender on the later ballots.

Using databases of supporters compiled before the primary, representatives of all the campaigns have been e-mailing and calling, lining up delegate slates and encouraging Republicans to attend the caucuses.

If the anti-Trump factions, some of them aligned with Republican Governor Charlie Baker, succeed in picking off delegates between now and the July party confab, it will likely enrage Trump backers, many of whom already cite disenchantment with the political system as a reason for their support.

“I’m not going to say there will be pitchforks in the street, but there will certainly be the expected discontent,” said state Representative Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican and the state’s top elected official to back Trump.

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“There will be outrage,” Diehl added.

Already, Massachusetts conservatives are angry with Baker, who himself emerged from a contested convention in 2014 that led to a lawsuit against party officials. His recent move to increase control of the state party apparatus, which exercises some control of the delegate selection process, has only deepened suspicions of hijinks before the convention.

Backers of both Cruz and Trump, as well as unaffiliated party insiders, say privately they expect party leaders to work behind the scenes to deprive Trump of delegates — beyond those required by party rules. But whether the alternative is Cruz or someone who has not yet emerged is unknown.

State GOP chairwoman Kirsten Hughes said the caucuses that will determine nearly two-thirds of the state’s delegates will hinge on campaigns’ organizational abilities, and called the results difficult to predict.

“It depends who turns out on the caucuses. I just don’t know,” Hughes said.

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The jockeying for Massachusetts’ delegates is fraught with tensions splitting both the national and state parties, as rank-and-file voters buck the more moderate establishments at both levels.

Baker has demonstrated a lack of interest in either Trump or Cruz, and signaled he likely will not attend the convention. But with Cruz narrowing the gap in delegates nationally, Baker, a popular Republican in a left-leaning state, could opt to play a role at what may become a contested convention in Cleveland.

That could allow him to present himself as acting in the interests of moderate voters back home, while simultaneously helping the party establishment by steering delegates toward an anti-Trump effort.

In an e-mail, the governor’s political adviser, Jim Conroy, said Baker was “optimistic that the process will be orderly, fair, and conducted in [accordance] with the rules — and that ultimately the Republican Party will emerge stronger.”

Trump’s organizers won a victory last week when the state GOP’s delegate allocation panel met and awarded Trump five of the 12 at-large delegates, one shy of the six they had sought. But Trump backers were so leery of establishment chicanery that about two dozen protested outside the party offices, hoisting Trump campaign signs on the sidewalk.

The 12 delegates who fill those slots will ultimately be chosen in May by the Republican State Committee, over which Baker recently increased control by backing a slate of moderates who had supported him.

Meanwhile, each of the state’s nine congressional districts will pick three delegates and three alternates on April 30. The remaining delegates are Hughes, longtime national committeeman Ron Kaufman, and national committeewoman Chanel Prunier.

Because of the results of Massachusetts’ March 1 primary, on the first ballot in Cleveland Trump will receive votes from 22 state delegates, Governor John Kasich of Ohio will collect eight, and Cruz, who has been conducting an aggressive delegate recruitment effort nationally, will pick up four. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who suspended his campaign, is working to hang on to all of the delegates he won, including those in Massachusetts.

Trump has proved far less adroit at the inside game of caucus-organizing than he has at garnering free media, and Cruz has excelled. As he has become Trump’s closest competitor, the Texas senator has also consolidated some support among national establishment Republican figures.

Caucus dynamics here also favor Cruz over Trump because, unlike the primary, they are open only to registered Republicans. Trump won much of his support in the Massachusetts primary from unenrolled voters.

Trump has repeatedly voiced grievances over the delegate process, calling the system rigged.

Convention rules, meanwhile, could change at party officials’ whim. Party insiders are watching closely as the RNC’s Standing Committee on Rules meets this week in Florida, part of a run-up to the July convention when Trump backers will be on alert for signs of sabotage.

In Massachusetts, Trump supporters say they have whittled away at the organizational advantages enjoyed by Cruz, who, political insiders say, has long had the best in-state organization.

One of those joining the Trump cause is Vincent DeVito, a Boston-based attorney who became entangled in Baker’s controversial 2014 convention victory over Mark Fisher, a candidate backed by the Tea Party movement.

“The Trump campaign is now highly organized in the state and will be working between now and April 30 to turn out the caucuses throughout the state,” said Amy Carnevale, a government affairs specialist and state committeewoman advising the Trump campaign.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.