Ted Cruz might have finished third in the S.C. GOP presidential primary in February, but the Texas senator grabbed an early lead Saturday with Palmetto State delegates headed to the national Republican convention this summer.
Cruz supporters took three of the six delegate seats elected at the congressional district meetings in Florence and Greenwood during the first rounds of voting for delegates to the national convention in Cleveland.
The result could provide a stepping stone to Cruz to challenge GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump at a possible contested national convention.
One backer of Trump, who won the S.C. primary handily, earned a delegate seat on Saturday. The other two delegates elected Saturday say they are uncommitted.
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S.C. state delegates will spend the next month electing 47 of South Carolina’s 50 GOP representatives to the national Republican convention held in July.
“We came out about as good as we could ask for,” said Alan Ray, who sits on Cruz’s S.C. leadership committee.
Trump was expected to do better than he did in the 7th congressional district convention in Florence, which includes Horry County where he won his largest share of votes in the primary.
Gerri McDaniel, Trump’s S.C. grassroots field director, said Saturday that she believes more delegates tied to the New York billionaire will win seats as delegate voting continues.
“This is just one day,” said McDaniel, who finished one vote short of becoming a delegate from the 7th congressional district. The North Myrtle Beach resident will go as an alternate to the national convention.
In February’s S.C. primary, Trump won all but two counties to take all 50 of South Carolina’s delegates.
But none of that matters if the famous real estate developer fails to win a majority of delegates nationwide before the national convention in July.
Trump’s chances of winning the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination is looking less likely, Cindy Costa, a Republican National Committee from South Carolina, and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, told delegates at the 7th congressional district convention.
“It’s looking more and more likely delegates are going to choose our candidate,” Rice said before issuing a warning. “If we do not unify, we will lose.”
Most states require delegates at the national convention to vote for the candidate who won their state or congressional district in the primary on the first or second ballot. If no candidate wins a majority of votes for the party’s nomination, delegates can start voting for other hopefuls on subsequent ballots.
The S.C. GOP requires delegates vote for the primary winner on the first ballot only in Cleveland.
The Cruz campaign is working across the country to fill national delegate seats with the senator’s supporters in the hopes of winning a contested convention.
Inside a Florence adult education building on Saturday, the Cruz campaign brought Ray, a field director and an attorney to the 7th congressional district convention, where three delegates would be elected.
They handed out sheets with a slate of five delegates who back the senator before the votes and hovered around the table while ballots from 85 delegates were counted by hand.
Mimicking the record turnout for the primary, the delegate candidate field in Florence was large – 23 district delegates ran for three national convention seats and three alternate spots. Eight delegates ran in 2012.
Except for a one hiccup, some non-delegates cast ballots at first, the election went smoothly during the district convention.
Charlotte Hendrix, a Florence nurse, was the only delegate on the Cruz slate to win a trip to Cleveland from the 7th congressional district. After her win, Hendrix declined to say whether she would vote for the senator on a second round of national convention balloting.
“We will see what happens at the time,” she said.
Cruz fared better in the Upstate, where he finished with higher results than his statewide total in the S.C. primary. His backers won two of the three delegate seats at the 3rd congressional district convention in Greenwood.
A supporter of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the only other remaining active GOP presidential candidate, won an alternate seat from the 7th congressional district.
Elections in the South Carolina’s five other congressional districts, which will each choose three delegates, are slated through April 30. The state convention, where 26 national delegates will be elected, takes place May 7 in Columbia.