BANGOR — In a blow to Gov. Paul LePage, supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz took at least 19 of Maine’s 23 delegates to the party’s national convention on Saturday.
They outmaneuvered front-runner Donald Trump — who is endorsed by the governor — on the floor of Maine’s state convention with an eye toward a potential contested national convention in July between Trump, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“The grass-roots here is unbelievable,” said Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, one of the leaders of Cruz’s Maine campaign. “I’ve honestly never seen anything like it in my tenure in politics.”
The Texas senator won 12 of 23 national convention delegates at Maine’s March caucuses, with Trump winning nine and Kasich two. But they’re only bound to their candidates on a first ballot at the convention in Cleveland. On subsequent ballots, they can vote for anyone.
Trump is in front, but he isn’t on track to have enough delegates to win the nomination outright before the convention. If he falls short, it would likely go to a second ballot for the first time since 1948, leaving an opening for Cruz and Kasich.
Cruz’s campaign used majority support at the Maine convention to install 19 supporters — some of whom would vote for other candidates, then switch to Cruz on a second ballot — as delegates.
It was a big loss for Trump and LePage, even though the governor was elected as a delegate from Maine on Saturday, overcoming an effort from Cruz supporters to reject his bid.
He’s one of two confirmed Trump delegates, alongside Alex Willette, the party’s national committeeman. National committeewoman Ashley Ryan and Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett haven’t backed a candidate.
LePage blasted Cruz’s team on Friday, saying on Facebook that it reneged on a deal for a “unity ticket” that would proportion delegates according to the March caucus results and “betrayed the Maine people.”
But in his convention speech at the Cross Insurance Center — which came before delegates were announced — he made only a brief mention of that, calling for unity around the Republican ticket.
“What I’m telling you is it makes no difference to me whether it is Kasich, Trump or Cruz, but it better be one of them,” LePage said, “because frankly, we cannot stand another liberal in Washington.”
Top Cruz supporters denied there was ever a final deal and Mason said “this is not a surprise to anyone” and it’s “the way this process has worked for a long time.” Cruz has made similar maneuvers to win delegates at caucuses in Wyoming and Colorado.
His campaign circulated a slate of Cruz-approved delegate candidates earlier this week and during voting, Cruz activists paced the convention floor with posters showing it, with Trump and Kasich supporters aligning behind LePage’s unsuccessful ticket.
But the divisive presidential race showed itself in another way: Three high-profile surrogates — Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and John E. Sununu — spoke respectively for Cruz, Trump and Kasich, but LePage was the highest-ranking Maine Republican to inject himself into the election.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who isn’t endorsing a candidate, ignored the presidential race in her speech. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District — who also isn’t endorsing and is in a nationally targeted re-election race against Democrat Emily Cain — joked that he’d write in World War II veteran Norman Rossignol of Bangor.
Despite his candidate’s loss in Maine, LePage is still well-liked in the grass-roots. His speech was roundly cheered and Kympton Lovley, a Cruz supporter and delegate from Hampden, said that while he doesn’t trust Trump’s conservative bonafides, he supports “99 percent” of LePage’s policies.
“I’m just disappointed that he supported Donald Trump in this election,” Lovley said, “because I consider Paul LePage to be a true conservative.”