GOP delegates in Pennsylvania primary often are pledged only to themselves

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. AP

Donald Trump is super popular in Pennsylvania and likely to win that state’s primary April 26. Or is he?

The New York billionaire is leading handily in Pennsylvania polls but because of the unique way the state selects its delegates, there’s a big opening for Ted Cruz and, to a lesser degree, John Kasich.

And the GOP race for the nomination is very much about delegates now, as Texas Sen. Cruz and Ohio Gov. Kasich try to keep Trump from reaching the 1,237 delegates needed to win outright on the first ballot at the GOP convention in Cleveland in July.

The commonwealth has 71 delegates but only 14 “at large” ones are bound by the popular vote statewide and only for the first ballot. Three delegates are allocated to state party leaders and the rest – 54 – are chosen in each congressional district.

And the real clincher is that the candidates for delegates are not identified on the ballot as supporting any presidential contender – and they’re not bound to the winner of the primary vote, either.

And that’s where the fight is taking place.

“We are in a very tight, 3-way race,” said Lowman Henry, state chairman of the Cruz campaign. “The delegate race for us started last year, before Christmas. We are telling people ‘only vote for people who are saying they’ll vote for Ted Cruz’.”

Trump has been complaining loudly about the way he was shut out of the Colorado contest, where Cruz, who organized early, won all the delegates. The Trump campaign is organizing a protest Friday in Colorado.

In Pennsylvania, Trump and Cruz campaigns are lining up delegate slates and notifying potential voters. Kasich, a Pennsylvania native from McKeesport, is getting support from GOP party leaders.

James Klein, an insurance executive, is a pro-Trump candidate for delegate in Spring Mills, near State College, home of Penn State, in the central part of the state. “I believe the country has a lot of problems. We’re going to hire somebody to fix those problems and I think Donald Trump has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, he can build things,” he said.

Trump’s problem isn’t winning districts; it’s winning delegates.

James Klein, Trump backer

Klein is one of nine candidates vying for three delegate slots from the 5th congressional district. He says he’s got a commitment from two others to also vote for Trump; he’s not printing up brochures but trying to publicize their names.

But the Pennsylvania system doesn’t have any guarantees.

“We’re not blind-sided by all of this,” said Alex Shorb, chairman of the York County Republican Committee in Pennsylvania. The state has for years had voters elect delegates directly and he drew up a brochure to help voters. Shorb is one of 15 contenders for three delegate seats from the 4th congressional district in the central part of the commonwealth, south of the capital, Harrisburg.

Could Cruz win as many as half of the Pennsylvania delegates? “Absolutely,” said Shorb, who is uncommitted. “York County is a perfect example. It is conceivable Trump wins the popular vote but the Cruz delegates are the ones who get through.”

Charlie Gerow, former national co-chairman of the Carly Fiorina campaign, also is uncommitted in his race for delegate, also in the 4th congressional district. “I believe it is a very close race between all three presidential candidates. The person I see gaining ground is Kasich, who has the support of much of the party establishment.”

In a vote where the loyalty of a delegate is unknown, a candidate’s biggest advantage, Gerow said, may be a would-be delegate’s position on the ballot, where the top three names are most likely to be chosen. That placement was chosen by lottery.