As the American Legion hall filled in, the crowd buzzed over the unusual spectacle they were about to witness: A Republican presidential candidate campaigning in this deeply Democratic state.
“We count this year. It’s amazing. We count this year!” said Dave Walcher, an insurance agent from Towson, near Baltimore, who wore a black T-shirt showing Ronald Reagan dressed like a biker. Tuesday’s primary is the first Walcher, 49, can remember mattering.
Just as remarkable is the man responsible for Maryland’s competitive status: Ted Cruz.
He has prevented Donald Trump from wrapping up the nomination and stands, improbably, as the last hope of a GOP establishment that openly loathes the brash, theatrical Texan.
“If the right people don’t like you, then you’re probably the right guy,” said Steven Brosey, 54, who attended the Cruz rally Monday. “Ted Cruz understands the Constitution and has taken unpopular stands. I like that.”
Cruz, 45, was the first Republican candidate to get in the race and has done a lot of things very well, not least of which is to outlast 14 rivals.
He has stuck to his conservative message while avoiding gaffes. Early on he conspicuously avoiding tangling with Trump. His debate performances have been solid. He’s raised a surprising amount of money and poured that into a team that has used voter data to target people with tailored messages.
The result: Key victories, including Iowa, that have stymied Trump’s path to the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination.
Distrustful of Trump’s ideological conviction, his outlandish style and potential effect on crucial down-ballot races, Republicans are slowly coming around to Cruz.
“I’m getting more comfortable with him,” said St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler, a major GOP fundraiser and party insider who had supported Jeb Bush. Last Monday, Cruz called Sembler to ask for help. Sembler sent him a $5,400 check and offered to put the campaign in contact with other Florida donors.
“He’s still a certified looney,” said Al Hoffman, another top Florida fundraiser and Bush supporter, referring to some of Cruz’s positions, including abolishing the IRS and mass deportations. “But he’s probably the only hope we have. Anybody but Trump. Let’s hope he learns how to be a president if he can win. In my view it’s a less than 50-50 chance he would even win.”
He’s still a certified looney. But he’s probably the only hope we have.
Republican fundraiser Fundraiser Al Hoffman
Bush has been reaching out to his donor network on behalf of Cruz, less a sign of devotion to the candidate than a desire to stop Trump.
Marco Rubio hasn’t backed Cruz as fully but some of Rubio’s donors are warming — and election results indicate Cruz has attracted would-be Rubio voters.
Is it enough?
Trump is still rolling, and is expected to add to the momentum he regained in New York. Polls show him comfortably ahead in Maryland, Pennsylvania and other northern states that voteTuesday.
Cruz is hoping to pick off some delegates by targeting congressional districts, hence his detour to Towson. He views Indiana as winnable and has turned attention to California, which could decide the race with its early June primary.
His objective is a contested convention in Cleveland in July that banks on Trump losing on the first round of balloting. It would be difficult yet not insurmountable, a contentious battle not seen in decades.
“You know, it’s easy to talk about making America great again. You could even print that on a baseball cap,” Cruz said in Towson. “But the real question is, do you understand the principles and values that made America great in the first place?”
While Cruz has softened aspects of his image, highlighting a sense of humor and his family, his message remains solidly conservative: He would get rid of Obamacare, throw out the “catastrophic” nuclear deal with Iran, eliminate many regulations he says are holding back businesses and slash taxes. In addition to ending the IRS “as we know it,” he would dismantle the Department of Education, Energy and Commerce.
Striving to cut into Trump’s appeal to working-class white voters, Cruz has called attention to stagnant wages and higher living costs. In Towson he said he wanted to reach truck drivers, plumbers and machinists, “all the men and women with calluses on your hands.”
Republicans in Washington discard Cruz as a performer. “I hate Ted Cruz and I think I’ll take cyanide if he ever got the nomination,” Rep. Peter King of New York said recently. But Cruz’s rebellious streak, uncompromising style and preacher-like delivery excites the grassroots.
“People laughed that he talked for 21 hours on the Senate floor. I loved that about him,” said Kathleen Smith, 53, referring to Cruz’s 2013 rant over Obamacare that shut down the government for 16 days. “I was cheering for him at home saying, 'Yes, you are doing what you are supposed to be doing.’ ”
“Shutting down the government is not a bad thing,” said Lowell Seal, 48, who lamented the last two GOP nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, as “milquetoast Republicans, quasi-conservatives.”
Shutting down the government is not a bad thing.
“Millions of voters stayed home,” Seal said. “Like it or not, at least Cruz does what he says he’s going to do.”
Cruz arrived in the Senate in 2012, coming from obscurity to topple the establishment’s anointed candidate, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
“He’s indefatigable,” said strategist Dave Carney, who worked on Dewhurst’s campaign. “People always underestimate him.”
The race went into a runoff and Cruz’s campaign outsmarted Dewhurst by finding Republicans who skipped the primary. “We’re calling and mailing people from the first election and he’s doing that plus finding new voters,” Carney said. “He just crushed us.”
Cruz announced his presidential campaign in March 2015 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., putting his social conservatism at the forefront. It served him well in Iowa, where evangelical voters dominate the caucuses. Cruz used his data mining to target Republican voters who had not turned out in past elections, sending them mailers that effectively sought to shame them into participating.
“I will apologize to nobody for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote,” Cruz said, scoffing at complaints from Trump and others.
Though Cruz struggled in other early states, he rebounded by winning Texas, whose March 1primary came at an opportune time and awarded him a large cache of delegates. What’s more, Cruz has benefitted from growing worry among Republicans that Trump could win. Talk radio hosts in Wisconsin, where Cruz scored another important victory April 5, were unrelenting in criticism of Trump.
Still, it has not all been circumstance.
Cruz’s campaign has outworked Trump, fighting in states such as Colorado and Wyoming that held party conventions rather than a primary. Now as states begin picking delegates, Cruz’s team has helped seat allies who would be critical at a contested convention. Some delegates are unbound, essentially free agents, while others must stick to the winning candidate for one or more rounds.
Trump’s supporters have flooded delegate selection meetings in Florida, protesting what they contend is a Cruz bias. The state’s 99 delegates are bound for the first three ballots but then could go with a candidate of their choosing.
Manny Roman, who chaired Cruz’s Miami-Dade County campaign, applied to be a delegate for Florida’s 25th congressional district. His pitch to local GOP leaders? That they should want Cruz allies at the convention, since hometown favorite Rubio is out of the race, and many Rubio backers dislike Trump.
Roman wasn’t selected, but he plans to campaign to those who were.
“A lot of Rubio supporters were elected,” he said. “Throughout the country we are seeing the vast majority of past Rubio supporters united behind Ted Cruz and I expect Miami to be no different. I know many of the delegates at a very personal level from working together on past elections and I’ll be reaching out to them over the next weeks to explain why Ted Cruz is the best candidate.”
Said GOP pollster Brad Coker: “A lot of Trump supporters were people who had never voted before, particularly in a Republican primary. They showed up on Election Day, vented their anger and went home and thought that was the end of it. Now Trump is finding out, 'Wait a minute, I thought I had all those delegates.’ He doesn’t have loyal bodies in those seats.”
If Cruz can pull it off, he would be the most conservative nominee in decades. Plenty of Republicans doubt his general election appeal and Democrats are eager to paint him as too extreme for a diversifying country.
Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster, said married women favored Romney over Barack Obama in 2012 by 7 percentage points but pointed to a fresh survey indicating Hillary Clinton is tied with Cruz among that group.
“People may not want someone who is part of Washington business as usual but they also don’t want someone who is more focused on grandstanding than coming together to solve problems,” Omero said.
“He’s going to have issues with swing voters,” Coker said. “But Trump is such a loose cannon. He’s a high-risk candidate who would do major damage up and down the ticket. Cruz certainly won’t cost them as much.”
He’s going to have issues with swing voters. But Trump is such a loose cannon.
Pollster Brad Coker
In Towson, Cruz sowed doubt about Trump’s ability to win a general election, noting that one poll in Utah showed Clinton beating him there in a hypothetical matchup.
“If the Republican cannot carry a bright red Utah,” he said, “we’re looking at a Walter Mondale level bloodbath across the country. That means it costs us the Senate, it may cost us the House, we lose the Supreme Court for a generation.”
Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has her own issues, including a growing negative rating that outpaces her positive by 24 points. That’s in line with Cruz, who is competitive in head-to-head matchups with Clinton.
“Everyone said Reagan can’t beat Carter,” Coker said. “But it turned out people said Reagan isn’t that scary. I wouldn’t compare Cruz to Reagan but in some ways he’s like that.”
The Cruz-Trump fight continues to lurch toward California’s June 7 primary, when 172 delegates are at stake.
“That’s where this will be brought into sharp relief,” said Kellyanne Conway, who runs a super PAC supporting Cruz. “Voters will start to realize, 'I’m the person who stands between Donald Trump and the nomination. Do I want to lean into the inevitable or do I have cause for pause and say, not so fast, why don’t we take it to the convention?’ ”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.