FARGO, North Dakota — North Dakota Republicans selected 25 national delegates Sunday, with results that looked good for Ted Cruz, but were far from certain because each delegate will be a free agent at the national convention.
The North Dakota delegates include eight Republicans who have said they will vote for Cruz and one who is supporting Donald Trump. But just as many delegates were mum about their plans when questioned over the weekend.
The delegates met Sunday evening, just as the convention ended, and selected State Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong to be chair their convention delegation and chose Republican National Committeeman Curly Haugland and RNC Committeewoman Sandy Boehler to serve on the powerful convention rules committee.
Party leaders make up many of the slots, including Gov. Jack Dalrymple, First Lady Betsy Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and top party donors. But party activists won a good number of slots, too.
The delegates who said they were supporting Cruz Sunday were adamant in their support. Rick Becker, who ran a close race for the Republican nomination for governor at the convention, said he didn’t want to hold out making a decision in order to be wooed by candidates.
“Should I play that game? No, I don’t care. If I was actually undecided, I’d say that, but I just kind of, I’m always standing by principle, as boring as that might be. I know I’m going to support Cruz, I can’t fathom what would occur.” Becker said. “Holding out for a helicopter ride, or the goodie bags, or all that kind of crap. I’m just, I’m not interested in that.”
With the delegates formally unbound and free to make their own decisions at the national convention, it would be impossible to declare North Dakota’s results a clear win for any of the three campaigns. But the race was on Sunday evening to do just that anyway. The Cruz campaign sought to portray the results as an unequivocal win.
“I’m thrilled to have the vote of confidence of Republican voters in North Dakota who delivered such a resounding victory today,” Cruz said in a statement. “As I met them over the weekend, North Dakota Republicans recognized that I am the only candidate who can move this country forward by protecting freedom and liberty. Whether we defeat Donald Trump before the convention or at it, I’m energized to have the support of the vast majority of North Dakota delegates.”
Even though none of the 17 national delegates contacted by CNN said they were voting for Kasich, the Ohio governor’s campaign claimed a victory of sorts Sunday evening.
“Cruz strong arm tactics fail in ND, where he lost key floor vote & helped elect delegates who will vote @johnkasich in Cleveland. #NDGOP16” tweeted top Kasich strategist John Weaver.
Cruz himself addressed the North Dakota Republican gathering Saturday. The other campaigns sent surrogates. Former candidate Ben Carson rallied the more than 1,600 state delegates for Trump Sunday morning, with a speech focused heavily on faith and his efforts to teach Trump religion and spirituality. But behind the scenes he lobbied North Dakota Republican brass one-on-one.
Ahead of Sunday’s speech, he pulled Haugland into a private meeting, he also met privately with former Gov. Ed Schafer the night before.
“We had an opportunity to really explain things, to explain rationale for doing things,” Carson told CNN backstage at the Scheels Arena. “I said the proof will be in the pudding we’ll see how it all comes out.”
As the delegates packed into this Fargo hockey arena for the final day of their state convention, the Trump, Cruz and Kasich campaigns worked furiously to identify supporters. Republicans were scheduled to vote for 25 national delegates from a list of 74 nominated delegates.
But the state’s unique delegate selection process — which lets delegates vote for whichever candidate they prefer at the national convention — led to much battling between the campaigns.
North Dakota’s lone congressman, Rep. Kevin Cramer, endorsed Trump Sunday, shortly before North Dakota Republicans began selecting the delegates to the national convention.
“It’s something I’d been processing for a long time and it really culminated with my online straw poll where I really did want to give voice to the people who can’t be here,” Cramer said.
Because the delegates will be unbound, they are not formally committed to any campaign. But that didn’t stop the campaigns from working to set expectations so they could claim victory.
Trump adviser Barry Bennett told CNN that “a plurality” on the list of 25 preferred were leaning toward Trump after a strong lobbying effort from Cramer, who Bennett called the Trump operation’s “Sherpa” over the course of the hectic weekend.
“We’ll be drinking champagne here all day,” Bennett said, if the slate of 25 delegates picked by party leaders earlier this weekend passes in the convention. Of the 25 people the party leaders put forward, 16 were chosen and nine new delegates were selected.
Still, as is the case on the ground in states around the country, Cruz’s campaign has had a strong presence in and around the convention. In addition to Cruz’s speech on Saturday, Carly Fiorina, the former presidential candidate and top Cruz surrogate, has been meeting publicly and privately with potential delegates since Friday.
As many as 10 of the delegates on the preferred list have indicated some or solid public support for Cruz.
Kasich’s delegate wranglers were equally optimistic Saturday after reviewing the list of party picks, saying they saw at least 20 on their who could be swayed to their side.
In the end, however, the decisions will not be known until the delegates place their vote on the first ballot at the national convention in Cleveland.
CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty contributed to this report.