It’s a state that exemplifies the damage wrought on Middle America by misguided policy making in Washington — a state that, arguably more than all others, has suffered over the last eight years.
West Virginia, stacked with reasons to resent Washington and the D.C. Establishment, should be something of a lay-up for Donald Trump. The only poll conducted in the state found Trump with a commanding 40 to 20 percent lead over second place Ted Cruz, according to WV MetroNews and Repass Research in February. In further evidence of how well Trump should do in West Virginia, the front-runner carried 30 of 32 Ohio counties located in the Appalachian Region of that state, an area with similar demographics and economic outlook to much of the Mountain State.
But West Virginia has an arcane system of selecting its delegates that hands some advantage to the candidates who were the best organized the earliest — that was not Donald Trump.
Individuals in West Virginia are elected directly to be delegates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Their names are put forward by January 30 as candidates for RNC delegates bound to whichever candidate they profess a preference for at the time. The system adds a local touch to the presidential vote. Primary goers can select the delegates pledged to their preferred 2016 candidate or vote for a grassroots, elected or simply popular figure they may know and support, regardless of 2016 preference.
Long before anyone could have known these delegates West Virginia will choose on May 10 might have mattered, the Cruz campaign was there, recruiting a strong slate of known figures in the state to boost their chances.
One of those figures enlisted by the Cruz camp in early January was Rep. Alex Mooney, the only one of three GOP congressmen in the state to pick a side. The campaign wooed the conservative leader early to lead the Cruz delegate wrangling operation and to stand for delegate himself as a committed Cruz supporter.
“I’ve seen Ted Cruz in action as a U.S. senator stand firm when there is a lot of pressure to compromise or cave in,” Mooney said in an email to LifeZette. “If nothing else, we have seen this election cycle that the American people want someone with a proven conservative record they can count on to fight hard to reverse the damage done by outgoing President Barack Obama.”
The sitting congressman is more of a known quantity, with a real base than anyone on the Trump delegate lineup in the state.
Cruz also has at least five state legislators standing for delegate, committed to support him at the national GOP convention including state delegate John Overington, an influential committee chair in Charleston.
The landscape of this contest, including Cruz’s more advanced delegate operation, was largely baked by February 1, long before Trump’s recent campaign retooling and far from the reach of new Trump strategist Paul Manafort.
Manafort was brought on by Trump to get the campaign into the fray of actual delegate selection and to stop the delegate bleeding witnessed in states like Louisiana, North Dakota and the worst for Trump yet, the route in Colorado just after Manafort joined the team.
But states like West Virginia demonstrate just how far behind the eight ball the Trump operation has fallen. The states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island all vote on April 26 and apportion at least some of their delegates in the same direct election system as West Virginia. Like in the Mountain State, the task of recruiting party activists and leaders on the ground to stand for delegates on the slate has already passed.
The large organizational lead boasted by the Cruz camp in delegate selection battles nationwide, leaves Manafort with a monumentally difficult path ahead. Aside from the four states with some element of direct election, there are 25 state conventions remaining where delegates to Cleveland will be selected. But many of those are already partially settled, with eligible delegates already selected by county conventions or chosen by party leaders. With only a sliver of time remaining and scant starting organization, it will be tough for Trump to marshal a competitive campaign at all in any of these contests.
No matter how he might try, Paul Manafort faces a steep climb putting the delegate pieces together for his boss, particularly with so much of the landscape already carved into stone.