The most important figures in the Republican presidential primary right now are not New York voters. They’re also not the wave of delegates who, in state after state, have made it clear that they’ll support Sen. Ted Cruz if they become unbound on later ballots at July’s Republican National Convention. The most important figures right now are the delegates who will be unbound on the first ballot of the convention and will effectively hold veto power over whether Donald Trump is the party’s nominee.
And there will be 54 of these delegates from Pennsylvania alone, making the Keystone State’s delegation some of the most critical individuals at the convention.
Given the tightness of the presidential race, Pennsylvania’s quirky Republican primary system affords the state’s delegates the most nominating leverage they’ve had in 40 years. Republican voters on April 26 will choose a presidential candidate to first determine the winner of the 17 bound, statewide delegates. But the 54 delegates allocated by congressional district will be voted on separately—without any candidate preference listed next to delegate candidates’ names. This means the district delegate winners will be true wild cards—not bound to the candidate preferences of the men and women in their state or districts—and the targets of serious persuasion efforts from the campaigns of Trump, Cruz, and John Kasich through the first ballot vote in Cleveland.
The good news for Trump is that he’s comfortably leading in Pennsylvania, and many of the delegate candidates are saying they’ll vote in Cleveland according to their districts’ wishes. In a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review survey of the 162 delegate candidates on the ballot (to which 127 have responded), 67 have said that they’ll vote on the first ballot for whoever wins their districts. If Trump trounces his competition in the state, he’ll likely win the lion’s share of its 18 congressional districts and the support of many of these unbound delegates promising to obey the will of the voters.
The bad news for Trump, however, is that many of those delegate candidates who’ve pledged to support the winner of their districts may not hold to that position under the spotlight of a national convention—whether they honestly believe they will now or not.
“That’s the position I’ve taken. I think that’s the logical position, but whether or not that actually happens is another thing altogether,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican operative and delegate candidate in the 4th District. “There’s going to be tremendous pressure put on the folks who are elected on April 26 in every direction, and where they ultimately end up is going to be very interesting.” These “folks”—including Gerow—aren’t lying about their commitment to support the winner of their districts, he said. Gerow just “knows how these things go.”
John Schnaedter, executive director of the Allegheny County Republican Party, agreed that these survey pledges don’t mean much—and may just be part of electoral strategy. “Because [the delegates] are being elected, they’re watching what they say. They don’t want to turn anybody off,” he said. “They’re being kind of vague as to who they actually really want to support, just so they don’t alienate any kind of potential voters.”
How do voters even go about choosing delegates with no candidate affiliation next to their names? In districts like the 12th, which has 15 candidates for three slots, it’s mostly about ballot placement and name recognition within Republican political circles. “I think Dave Majernik has a really good shot … because he’s the vice chair of the [Allegheny County Republican Party] and also he’s [listed] second [on the ballot],” Schnaedter said. Two candidates, Bob Howard and Jill Cooper, he added, are lower on the ballot (13th in Howard’s case and third in Cooper’s) but have similarly good chances because of name recognition alone.
“If I were to bet,” he said, “I would guarantee that two of those three make it, if not three of those three.” Of the three candidates Schnaedter says has the best shot of representing the 12th, he believes all of them are supporting Cruz. “They’re probably not admitting it, but I know they are,” he said. Howard, Cooper, and Majernik have all pledged to support the winner of their districts on the first ballot.
Other districts are far less competitive. The 14th District, for example, has only three candidates for its three delegate positions. It’s not surprising, then, that each of the candidates’ public position is “uncommitted,” since these candidates don’t need to make any tiresome pledges to voters to respect their wishes in order to get elected.
“I’m talking to lots of folks. I’m listening. I certainly will weigh what the voters do in my district. I’ll certainly look to what the voters do statewide,” said Mike DeVanney, a Republican strategist in Pittsburgh and one of the 14th District’s three candidates (e.g. one of the eventual delegates). “But I also recognize, as someone who’s independently elected, that I have a responsibility for my vote at the convention to help nominate a candidate who can ultimately win in November, and also someone who I think can articulate a Republican message and grow our party.”
DeVanney was originally a Marco Rubio supporter and served as a regional state finance chair for the Florida senator’s now-suspended presidential campaign. Mary Ann Meloy, a former official in the Reagan White House and another 14th District delegate candidate who was also originally a Rubio supporter, said she has a “sacred” duty to support a candidate who can win in November. Both believe that the Rubio campaign was easily the best organized in Pennsylvania, and Rubio’s original delegate recruits will comprise a significant bloc of the delegates elected later this month.
“None of the campaigns were organized in Pennsylvania except the Rubio campaign,” DeVanney said. “We knew the rules. So we recruited a lot of Rubio’s [most prominent] supporters to run for delegate. Frankly that was how I ended up on the ballot.” Rubio’s Pennsylvania operation was “ very thoughtful” of whom they recruited—people with relatively high name recognition, for example. “I am still very confident that a large number of people like me, who had Rubio as a first preference, are going to be victorious,” he added.
None of these ex-Rubio supporters would say it explicitly, but the subtext here is pretty obvious: If the Rubio campaign had scooped up many of the most recognizable delegate candidates in each district, then these candidates were probably not likely to shift their support to the likes of Trump. They “believe the same things that Marco Rubio believes, about America and the party and anything else,” said Chris Bravacos, another Pennsylvania Republican operative who chaired Rubio’s campaign in the state. In other words, with a few exceptions, these likely delegates probably consider Trump an unelectable con man who’s destroying the party. Bravacos has a list of all the delegate candidates the Rubio campaign recruited in each district but declined to share it with Slate, lest it affect those candidates’ ongoing campaigns.
Gerow, on the other hand, scoffed at the idea that the Pennsylvania delegation will be chock full of stealth Rubio exiles. “Mike [DeVanney] is a guy I respect,” Gerow said, laughing, but DeVanney and the rest of Rubio’s statewide operation “are reaching back to pat themselves on the back after their candidate’s off the ballot.”
Gerow doesn’t deny, however, that much of Pennsylvania’s slate of unbound district delegate candidates might not vote with the current runaway leader in the state.
“Looking up and down the list of delegate candidates, and I have done that,” he said, “I don’t see a lot of support for Donald Trump among the people who are running.” And come July, those 54 men and women could make all the difference between a first-ballot Trump nomination and an open convention.