Parties begin process of selecting national convention delegates

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, right, shakes hands with Gov. Scott Walker during a primary night campaign event in Milwaukee. Cruz won 36 of the state's 42 Republican National Convention delegates.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Eau Claire Republican Brian Westrate campaigned hard for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in recent weeks, but if he is chosen as a delegate to the Republican National Convention this summer he’ll be casting his vote for celebrity billionaire Donald Trump.

Welcome to the weird and wonky next phase of the 2016 presidential campaign — the delegate selection process.

It’s significant this year because so far neither party has crowned a presumptive nominee, making the role of delegates even more important. On the Republican side in particular, Cruz’s 48-35 percent win over Trump in Wisconsin on Tuesday makes the possibility of a contested convention — in which delegates will loom large — more likely.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also won a decisive 57-43 percent victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his sixth state victory in a row.

But based on the state parties’ different delegate allocation rules, Cruz will have a 36-6 Wisconsin delegate edge over Trump, while Sanders and Clinton could end up with the same number of Wisconsin delegates at the convention.

Cruz’s 36 Wisconsin delegates pledged to vote for him at the convention in Cleveland include 18 from the winner-take-all statewide vote, most of whom will be picked by the Cruz campaign, and 18 for winning a plurality in six congressional districts, including Madison’s 2nd.

Trump won two districts, the 3rd and 7th in western and northern parts of the state, so he will have six delegates from those district-level caucuses backing him.

According to a national tally by The Associated Press, Trump leads Cruz 743-517 in the delegate count. Ohio Gov. John Kasich trails with 143 delegates, and 1,237 are needed to win the nomination.

Clinton now has 1,280 delegates assigned proportionally by popular vote while Sanders has 1,030. Including “superdelegates” who are certain state party leaders and members of Congress, Clinton leads 1,749-1,061, with 2,383 needed to win.

Trump wins 3rd, 7th

Over the next several weeks, Republicans and Democrats will meet in local caucuses to vote for the people who will serve as those delegates at their respective national nominating conventions in July.

Westrate, 37, a small business owner and chairman of the Republican Party’s 3rd District, is one of seven party members running for the three delegate slots and three alternate slots on Saturday in his district.

Though Westrate voted for Cruz on Tuesday, he would be bound by state party rules that say he has to vote for Trump. The only way he would be allowed to change votes at the convention is if Trump received less than 30 percent of a convention floor vote, or if Trump were to allow him to change his vote.

Neither scenario is likely, which means Wisconsin’s delegates won’t play much of a role in the potential political intrigue should none of the three remaining candidates secure the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination. Delegates from some states are allowed to change their vote after the first ballot, which has led to the Cruz, Trump and Kasich campaigns engaging in a behind-the-scenes effort to secure delegates on later ballots.

Westrate said Trump was successful in the 3rd district and bordering 7th district because the GOP voters there are white, blue collar, middle class and “universally angry at government.” He said he wouldn’t have mixed feelings if he had to vote for Trump at the convention.

“I’m going to honor the voice of the 3rd,” Westrate said. “I’m white middle class myself who is angry at politics.”

Jim Miller, GOP chairman in the 7th District, said what tipped the scales for Trump in rural parts of the state was an anti-establishment resentment even within the state party. Conservative talk radio, which doesn’t reach into much of northern and western Wisconsin, pounded Trump and boosted Cruz and “that drove a little bit of resentment.”

“He’s an unconventional candidate,” Miller said of Trump. “There’s a gamble associated with it. But at this point people say it can’t get much worse. They’re willing to take a risk and put their chips on the table and see how it pans out.”

Democrats split delegates

Democrats divide their delegates proportionally both statewide and in the eight congressional districts. There are also 10 “superdelegates” who aren’t bound by the primary results and can vote for whomever they choose.

Based on Tuesday’s results, Sanders will get 48 delegates based on popular vote and Clinton will get 38.

However, Clinton has already received endorsements from six of the 10 superdelegates. The other four said Wednesday they remain undecided.

State party chairwoman Martha Laning and vice-chairman Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee, both superdelegates, plan to support the party’s presumptive nominee heading into the convention, spokesman Brandon Weathersby said.

“We’re fully anticipating having a presumptive nominee going into this summer’s convention,” Weathersby said. “That is who they plan to support in July because both candidates are heads and shoulders above all of the Republican Party’s primary candidates.”

Laning told reporters Wednesday she anticipates the nominee will have a majority of the pledged delegates, not including superdelegates.

“Since we’ve had unpledged delegates around, they have never swung an election and we don’t anticipate that happening this time around,” Laning said.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said he plans to decide whom to support after the national primary season wraps up on June 14, but he acknowledged it would be unfair if the candidate with more popular votes received the same or fewer delegates. He said superdelegates should be able to tweak the process if necessary, something Republicans aren’t able to do with two anti-establishment candidates leading the nomination.

“This is what Republicans would give limbs for right now,” Pocan said. “This is what the superdelegate process is intended for so it shouldn’t be abused.”

The regular Democratic delegates are divided in each congressional district by gender to ensure equal representation. Potential delegates are first elected in county caucus meetings on April 17 and then at district caucus meetings on May 1.

Even though Sanders beat Clinton in all but Milwaukee County, the margin wasn’t enough in four congressional districts to earn him more than an even split of the six available delegates. In Madison’s 2nd District, Sanders won seven of the 11 delegates.

The statewide delegates include 10 who are selected among party leaders and elected officials, such as the mayor of Madison or the Senate minority leader. The party’s administrative committee will select those delegates on June 3, the weekend of the state convention in Green Bay. The delegates will include six Sanders supporters and four Clinton supporters.

Another 19 at-large delegates will be selected by the administrative committee on June 3 with a focus on achieving gender balance and adequate minority representation.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.