While North Dakota is a most unlikely place for the Republican presidential campaign to take a critical turn, it nonetheless delivered an apparent setback over the weekend to front-runner Donald Trump in the behind-the-scenes battle for delegates, as Ted Cruz declared victory at the northern border state's GOP convention.
Like most states where Cruz has claimed victory, North Dakota is relatively light on delegates. Trump’s wins in delegate-rich primary states have kept the billionaire businessman well ahead, and the events in Fargo won’t change that.
But the North Dakota showdown speaks to the organizational headwinds Trump is facing – something he’s also dealing with in Wisconsin, which holds its primary Tuesday and where Cruz is polling in front. And if nothing else, the North Dakota convention results could put Cruz in a better position at the party’s July convention if the nomination is still open going into Cleveland.
"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. “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."
The vote in North Dakota was not a traditional primary or caucus, but a convention. Delegates chosen over the weekend through an internal party process will not be “bound” to any candidate. For that reason, there technically was no winner from the weekend’s gathering.
Yet the presidential candidates still scrambled to try and get their own supporters elected as delegates, banking on their loyalty at the July convention.
In the end, the Cruz campaign claimed that 18 of the 25 delegates selected Sunday are supporters of the Texas senator.
The Trump campaign, though, disputed this, claiming some of those listed as Cruz supporters were actually undecided. One Trump source went so far as to call Cruz’s claims “bull,” saying the senator only has four dedicated supporters of the 18.
The campaign further claimed Sunday that they came into Fargo with “zero expectations” but were “encouraged by the results” in the end.
“Nearly one-third of Sen. Cruz's ‘list’ was not elected, and many of those elected from his ‘list’ are firmly undecided or support other candidates,” the Trump campaign said in a statement, while also touting an endorsement from Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
The campaign said supporter and former GOP primary candidate Ben Carson “privately met with many of the undecided delegates, and we're confident that we will receive strong support from the delegation in Cleveland.”
And John Weaver, strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, took to Twitter to claim Cruz’s “strong-arm tactics” failed in North Dakota, saying he “helped elect delegates who will vote” for Kasich in Cleveland.
For whom the 25 delegates in Cleveland will vote remains an open question, as they are not bound to anybody. Some listed as Cruz supporters were actually “leaning” toward him, and not necessarily committed.
But the anti-Trump organizing in Fargo was nevertheless robust.
One anti-Trump group, Our Principles PAC, was heavily involved on the ground in Fargo, deploying a field team to speak to convention attendees and distribute hundreds of voter guides to make the case against Trump.
"This campaign is coming down to a ground game battle for delegates,” PAC senior adviser Brian Baker said in a statement. “We will fight for every last delegate vote all the way to Cleveland. We are committed to making sure Donald Trump is not the Republican nominee and that the GOP wins the White House this fall with a principled conservative. Republicans at the North Dakota Convention rejected Trump, just like the entire Republican base will do this summer in Cleveland."
It’s these forces that Trump also is facing down in Wisconsin, which holds its primary on Tuesday. Cruz has led in most recent Wisconsin polls.
Trump is fighting to clinch the nomination before July with the requisite 1,237 delegates, while his remaining rivals try to hold him under that threshold.
Yet the front-runner has faced other setbacks in the grueling battle for each and every delegate. Recently in Louisiana, Trump has vowed to both file a lawsuit and an internal challenge within the Republican National Committee over reports that Cruz, despite losing the Louisiana primary to Trump in early March, could draw the support of enough “unbound” delegates and from Rubio supporters to actually overtake Trump in the state by as many as 10 delegates.
And The Tennessean reports that the Trump campaign is now accusing the Tennessee GOP of trying to stop pro-Trump delegates from being part of the state’s convention delegation.
Trump won the state’s primary, but a state party arm is responsible for appointing 14 of the 58-person delegation. The Trump camp reportedly alleges “anti-Trump” people have made their way onto the delegate list.
"They're picking establishment picks who don't support Donald Trump, and it's just the same effort that they're conducting all over the country to steal a vote here, steal a delegate there, to affect the outcome of the convention in July and take the nomination away from Donald Trump,” Darren Morris, Trump’s Tennessee state director, told the newspaper.
FoxNews.com’s Judson Berger and Fox News’ Dan Gallo, John Roberts and James Rosen contributed to this report.