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Who's Winning The GOP Ground Game In Washington State?

It’s not at all clear who will win the Republican primary in Washington state next month —Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich.

But a survey of the counties and legislative districts that have held early contests that will eventually select the state's delegates to the national convention reveals that one candidate appears to be dominating those proceedings so far: Cruz. 

And that could have a big impact if none of the presidential candidates has enough delegates to win the nomination by the time the convention begins in Cleveland in July.

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The Hunt for Delegates

The complicated process to pick this state’s delegates is happening largely behind the scenes at schools, churches, libraries and community centers around the state.

On a sunny Saturday morning, more than a hundred Republicans from the 5th Legislative District in eastern King County filled a junior high school cafeteria in the town of Ravensdale.

These delegates had already been elected once at their local precinct caucuses. Many of them hoped to move on to the Republican State Convention in Pasco, and possibly the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

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Barabara Hagstrom of Duvall sat at a table in the school lobby with a small Trump bumper sticker affixed to the front.

"I am stumping for Trump!" she said.

The last time she was actively involved in Republican politics was when Ronald Reagan ran for President. She came out this year because she loves Trump, she said.

"He’s not afraid to say what he feels. And that’s how the American person is. I don’t know if it’s the New York in him or what it is, but yeah, that’s what appeals to me, his boldness," Hagstrom said.

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At her precinct caucus, Hagstrom said half the delegates elected were Trump supporters.

Just a few feet away, Ted Cruz supporters sat behind a table that was easily identifiable with its large, colorful Cruz posters.

David Hickman, also a Duvall resident and the chair of the Cruz campaign for the 5th Legislative District, handed out bright red sheets of paper with the names of more than 40 delegates who have pledged loyalty to Cruz.

"Today we are trying to get as many Cruz delegates elected to the state convention as we can," Hickman said.

Why Do Delegates Matter?

On one level, it may seem unusual that the presidential campaigns are at all involved in the delegate selection process.

This year, Republicans will vote in a primary May 24. Voters are supposed to decide who wins the state.

Typically, the election of delegates is something of a formality. Delegates go to the national convention to cast their votes on the first ballot. There is usually no mystery about the outcome.

But this year, it's possible that no candidate will end up with 1,237 votes they need to win the nomination on the first ballot. And so the delegates who end up on the convention floor in Cleveland might actually have a lot of power.

"If nobody gets the magic 1,237, and the way it's looking, that seems probable, then the delegates at the national convention ... can vote their conscience on the second ballot," said David Hickman of the Cruz campaign. "We are trying to get as many people there that are pro-Cruz so that hopefully he would win the second ballot."

So here’s what that could look like. Let's say Donald Trump wins the most votes in the primary. He would then probably win the lion's share of the state's 44 delegates to the Republican National Convention. The delegate votes are apportioned according to a complex formula applied to the vote in each Congressional District.

But if Trump doesn’t win the nomination on the first ballot, the state’s delegates are released and they can vote for whomever they choose. That could be Cruz, Kasich, or someone who is not even in the race.

And so, at the weekend gathering of Republicans in eastern King County, when people stood at the microphone asking to be elected to the state convention, they made it very clear which candidate they support.

"My name is Eric Cowley. I am for Donald Trump. I want to go all the way to Cleveland. I think it's time for a change."

"Diana Arny. I prefer Kasich but I think Cruz may be the one to beat Trump, so if that’s what it takes to beat Trump, then I am going to go with Cruz."

"I am Patricia Walker, very conservative. I think the only chance to save the Constitution is to support Cruz."

From the very beginning, it’s clear that Cruz supporters are the majority. Out of more than 70 people vying for delegate slots, only about a half dozen or so are for Trump.

By the end of the balloting, Cruz supporters have taken every single delegate spot. 41 of them are heading to the state convention. Not one Trump supporter made it through, although several were eventually elected as alternates.

The Ground Game

It’s hard to know for sure whether the story in eastern King County is being repeated across the state. The state Republican Party isn’t keeping track of delegate preferences. 

But KUOW spoke with more than a dozen GOP officials and party activists across Western Washington, and found that in most of the contests so far, Cruz supporters have dominated.

The Cruz campaign seems to have the most robust organization of the candidates.

"It takes work to win delegates," said Randy Pepple, a Republican strategist and a supporter of Governor John Kasich. "It takes work to get people to show up for two or three hours on a Saturday or on a Tuesday night to participate in the delegate selection process."

Trump, he said, has not done the work to get his delegates elected. "And he hasn't hired people to do it for him," said Pepple.

Trump supporter Barbara Hagstrom admits the campaign needs a ground game. She says she only started organizing three days before the district caucus.

But Trump supporter Eric Cowley sees a more sinister plot afoot.

"I don’t like what just happened," said Cowley, who failed to win one of the delegate slots. "It’s not fair, they should have a representative to be able to go to Cleveland out of my district that stands for Donald Trump. This is an organized thing by Ted Cruz, in my opinion, to steal the nomination and the Republican Party," Cowley said.

The fight for delegates in Washington state is far from over, though. Big contests are scheduled this weekend in Pierce, Snohomish, Whatcom and Spokane counties.

And the biggest contest of all comes at the Republican State Convention, where 1500 delegates will choose just 44 people to represent the state at the Republican National Convention in July.

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Year started with KUOW: 2005