CLEVELAND—Ted Cruz does not choose a single word or phrase by accident. His every utterance is intentional, and so is its effect. And the key phrase from Cruz’s speech Wednesday night was: “Vote your conscience.” There was no mistaking what he meant, particularly if you were an anti-Trump delegate who’d spent the week getting roughed up by the party and its nominee. As soon as Cruz said that—right after teasing, cruelly, with the line “please, don’t stay home in November”—the impatient Trump delegates who’d been waiting months for an endorsement from Cruz just lost it. They began to boo, reportedly egged on by Trump operatives, and soon enough Trump himself arrived on the scene, glowering from the stairs, stepping all over Cruz’s moment.
“Vote your conscience” has become a loaded term for Republican delegates over the past week. Cruz loyalists, with whom anti-Trump die-hards heavily if not completely overlap, first tried to insert a “conscience clause” into the party rules that would unbind the delegates, allowing them to vote for the candidate of their choice. It was stomped out in committee last week, and then a protest against the rules package was killed in controversial fashion on the convention’s opening day. Saying “vote your conscience” wasn’t just a non-endorsement of Trump. It was a big kiss blown to the anti-Trumpers, thanking them for their service in Cleveland and giving them license not to vote for Trump.
The gesture was a welcome one. For Cruz and his delegates, the hazing from Trump World never seemed to stop. Even Trump’s plane was mocking them, interrupting a Cruz rally earlier in the day. Cruz’s delegates have been brow-beaten and derided by Trump’s campaign and the RNC throughout the week, and by late afternoon Wednesday, the question of whether Cruz would endorse his former rival was building into the marquee story of the RNC’s Day 3.
“I think it’s up to Ted Cruz to do what is best for his interests,” said Selma Sierra, a Utah delegate and director of the state’s Bureau of Land Management office. This was before the convention had been gaveled into session. Did she, personally, support Trump? “Wait ’til tonight,” she said. “I’m going to see what our great leader has to say.”
“It’s time. Tonight,” said Utah state Sen. Scott Jenkins, who supported Cruz in the primary but now stands firmly behind Trump. He doesn’t see what’s so complicated for the resisters. He’d heard some of his fellow Cruz delegates talking about how it’s a “moral issue.” But he doesn’t see the moral issue of stopping Hillary Clinton as all that difficult.
Jenkins also raised that other, more bureaucratic ethical question that cuts the other way: Cruz’s obligation to fulfill the pledge he signed last year promising to support the nominee. Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host, unsubtly called on Cruz to honor his word in her convention speech Wednesday night. “I want to say this very plainly: We should all—even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos, we love you—but you must honor your pledge to support Donald Trump now.” she said. “Tonight!”
There were Cruz delegates here who’d come hoping that the program might help them turn the corner on Trump. They found themselves more anti-Trump than ever after the goonish treatment they’d received from Trump’s campaign and the RNC during the rules matter. The whole affair involved a lot of parliamentary knife-fighting over a petition, signed by a majority of delegates from nine states, demanding a roll-call vote on the convention rules.
Trump and the RNC’s whip operation, recognizable by their neon-green baseball caps on the floor, “were threatening people as far as like, ‘If you don’t take your name [off the petition demanding a roll-call vote on the rules], we will end your career in politics,’ ” said Jennifer Fetters, a Washington delegate who served as coordinator for Cruz’s state campaign. “They were trying to be manipulative, saying, ‘You guys are sore losers,’ ” she added. Somebody, she said, was even “following around” another member of the Washington delegation. “She was going to call the roll-call vote, and she had Trump people pushing up against her, trying to get the sergeant-at-arms to move her back.”
Fetters continued: “I was hoping by the end of this convention I would feel unity, and unfortunately Trump and his supporters, the people who were working on his behalf here, as well as the RNC, our state party chair, made me say, ‘Nope.’ ” She hoped Cruz would say the same.
Minnesota delegate Andy Aplikowski, a Cruz supporter who lost a special election for state senate earlier this year, recounted a similar experience during the rules fiasco. At a Minnesota delegation meeting Monday ahead of the rules vote, the leaders of the state delegation and the RNC told everyone that disobeying “would have consequences.” Like? “Lack of money—Victory money—not getting support for our candidates.” He didn’t buy much into it, being from a blue state. “I’m in Minnesota. Every October, the RNC pulls the plug.” Though he didn’t remove his name from the petition demanding a rules vote, the RNC’s whips were able to remove three delegates from Minnesota’s petition, and it was over.
“This is not inclusiveness,” he said. “Unity is not force. Unity is achieved.”
On Wednesday, Cruz took a while to get to “vote your conscience,” overfilling his nine-minute speaking slot with a 23-minute speech. The Trump campaign had known for hours what Cruz was going to say and had emailed an embargoed copy of the speech to reporters so that they would know, too. If he wasn’t going to endorse, they figured, they might as well set him up to endure the wrath of the delegates.
After Cruz’s non-endorsement, and the “vote your conscience” edict had been issued, Scott Jenkins pronounced himself disappointed in Cruz, though he was far too polite to boo the way those unruly New Yorkers did. “It’s the same thing that happened to Romney: The sore losers went home,” he lamented. “Oh, well. I don’t know. Doggoneit!”
But Selma Sierra got the message. “We’ve been suppressed” by Trump delegates, she said, “and he’s talking about everybody having the same equal rights. I know we don’t, because we were kept from voicing our opinions, and wanting to have the rule roll call to give everybody an equal chance.” She pointed to some sections on the floor that had booed Cruz’s speech: “Clearly people don’t want that.”
Wednesday night was the first time that anti-Trump delegates got what they wanted all convention. After days of rejection, their message, which all week had been suffocated in little back rooms and snuffed out on the floor by goons in green hats, was heard. Cruz registered their dissent into the record forever.