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Big money outsiders turn to wooing GOP delegates

Julie Bykowicz
Associated Press

Washington – — After burning through millions of dollars in a mostly failed attempt to sway Republican primary voters, big-money outside groups opposing Donald Trump have turned to a far smaller target audience: the delegates who will actually choose the presidential nominee.

Our Principles, which is devoted to keeping Trump from winning, and super PACs backing Ted Cruz and John Kasich are spending their time and money researching the complex process of delegate selection and reaching out to those party insiders. Compared to earlier primary states like Florida, there have been few ads by outside groups on the air in New York, which holds its election Tuesday.

Delegates are the people — typically longtime Republicans and state party activists — who will have their say at the GOP convention this summer in Cleveland if Trump does not lock up the nomination first in the remaining voting contests.

The hot pursuit of such low-profile people by outside groups is yet another unprecedented twist in a history-defying presidential primary season.

The delegate focus comes after the groups’ earlier efforts turned out to be money not particularly well spent. GOP-aligned groups spent at least $218 million on presidential television and radio ads, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media’s CMAG. In one example, last month Our Principles put $2.3 million into ads trying to persuade Florida voters to ditch Trump, but he won the state anyway.

“At this stage, the delegate fight is the most important part of the race,” said Tim Miller, a spokesman for Our Principles. “The work we’re doing on it is how we get the biggest bang for our buck.”

Our Principles isn’t airing commercials at all in New York. On Wednesday, super PACs helping Cruz and Kasich purchased $700,000 in paid media there to run through Election Day, CMAG shows.

On the delegate front, the Trump, Cruz and Kasich campaigns all pay specialists to advise them. Yet the outside groups can’t resist crafting a role for themselves. By law, candidates cannot direct their helpful super PACs on how to spend money on paid communications. However, candidates and the outside groups keep a close eye on what the others are doing.

At a donor event last weekend at the Venetian casino resort in Las Vegas, pro-Cruz super PAC officials explained to a rapt audience how they are diving into data about Republican delegates.

Douglas Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Convention, said the organizational nature of a potential delegate fight plays into Cruz’s strengths. The Texas senator has cultivated relationships with conservative leaders across the country.

“Cruz hasn’t done things in haphazard fashion,” said Heye, who opposes Trump but is otherwise unaligned. “It takes a real team and the hard work of surrogates and coalitions to succeed at mastering the process in all 50 states.”