It's official: Ted Cruz needs a contested convention to win — and here's how he plans to do it

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz is coming off a big loss to Donald Trump in New York
  • He hopes to pick off congressional districts in Maryland and Pennsylvania

Towson, Maryland (CNN)The map weaves from hardscrabble downstate Delaware to heavily Catholic Rhode Island to tony Fairfield County boating towns on the waterfront of Long Island Sound.

Not exactly Cruz Country.
    Fresh off a bruising defeat at the hands of Donald Trump in New York, Ted Cruz is now retreating to what is, at best, only barely friendlier territory: The I-95 corridor, home to five states that will vote on Tuesday. As Cruz prepares for what could be one of the biggest momentum-stopping weeks of his campaign, he is aiming to make the best of a bad hand.
    And the rout on Tuesday means that Cruz now must win 101% of the remaining pledged delegates to clinch the Republican nomination, according to CNN calculations, making a contested convention his only hope. Yet even if Cruz is now officially mathematically eliminated, Trump still has a traditional, even if tight, path to the 1,237 delegates required for a first-ballot win.
    So Cruz's task next week is less about keeping alive his own path to the magic number -- and more about narrowing Trump's.
    In a series of contests that his campaign concedes will be rough, the Texas senator is training his eyes on a pair of states, Maryland and Pennsylvania, where he sees chances to pick off delegates even amid Trump's Northeast sweeps. That could provide enough of a thrust ahead of Indiana, where the campaign is slowly building an Iowa-like pop-up operation to beat Trump on the ground.
    "It is important to keep up some momentum," said Ellen Sauerbrey, a former U.S. ambassador and a longtime Maryland GOP powerbroker who is backing Cruz. "If it looks like Trump is having a clean sweep for the next two weeks, that undermines, I think, his campaign's momentum enough to slow it down."
    Maryland has long been eyed as the closest thing to an opportunity for the Cruz campaign on an unfriendly April 26 map. The day before the primary in New York -- where Cruz had not held a public campaign event in 72 hours -- he held a low-key rally in an American Legion hall in this Baltimore suburb.
    Unlike in other northeastern states, where his organization ranges from scant to non-existent, Cruz has built a real state campaign here. And much like he tried to do in New York, Cruz is planning to drill down on individual congressional districts, each of which will award three delegates Tuesday.
    New York was hardly a proof point for the wisdom of that strategy, despite aides' early confidence that they could limit Trump's romp.
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    Winning districts in Maryland won't be easy, Republicans on the ground here say, in a state home some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the United States, which make other states' partisan-rigged congressional maps look clean-cut. (The American Legion hall where Cruz spoke was in the Third District -- the library across the street was in the Second.)
    "Things have been drawn in such a way that it is probably a lot harder for a candidate like that to find pure conservative votes," said Steve Raabe, an unaligned GOP pollster based in Annapolis. "There aren't automatic congressional district pockets in this state."
    Cruz has suggested that he will not compete aggressively in the other trio of states -- Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware -- where Trump could easily sweep the 63 delegates needed to push him closer to the 1,237 delegate threshold needed to clinch the GOP nomination. Case in point: Cruz has not unveiled leadership teams in any of those states, even though they vote in only six days' time.
    Cruz was beat Tuesday across every demographic group in New York, according to exit polls, a state similar to those Cruz will confront next week. Some states present added obstacles for Cruz: Wealthy Connecticut suburbs could be prime target for the moderate John Kasich, while more economically depressed areas of Rhode Island or Delaware are sure to be attractive to Trump and his aides.
    But in Pennsylvania and Maryland, with their more intricate systems for awarding delegates, are poised to at least give Cruz some targets at which to shoot.
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    It was Pennsylvania where Cruz chose to greet the election results in New York on Tuesday night. Three-quarters of the state's 71 delegates are unbound, but its "loophole primary" system requires voters to cast ballots for individual delegates -- an organizational hurdle that the Cruz campaign has shown itself to have mastered so far in the GOP delegate fights.
    Lowman Henry, Cruz's chairman in the state, talked up his organization to reporters Tuesday evening in Philadelphia, pledging to run "18 different congressional district campaigns." Henry said their delegates are already committed.
    "We're going to voters saying: 'When you go into the polls on election day, vote four times for Ted Cruz. Vote for Ted Cruz and vote for each of his congressional district delegates,'" Henry said. "If a delegate candidate won't commit to your presidential candidate, don't waste your vote."
    Cruz is scheduled Wednesday to campaign outside Harrisburg, but Pennsylvania is another state where Cruz has yet to roll out a list of the political players guiding his statewide bid. Polls there have shown Trump with a 20-point lead over his rivals, and Kasich, the governor neighboring Ohio, has been on the Pennsylvania trail for weeks. Cruz quietly began $700,000 worth of advertising there this week.
    "Tonight, I'm speaking to you from Philadelphia," Cruz said from the National Constitution Center. "And we can learn a great deal about a path forward by focusing on the passionate disputes and disagreements among our founding fathers -- differences that were put aside only because of the weight and consequence of the principles they sought to proclaim and the price to be paid if they failed to rise to the task."
    Cruz's optimistic speech on Tuesday belied his increasing agitation with Trump for criticizing Cruz's campaign tactics. Trump's claims of a crooked system and shady delegate deals by their campaign has begun to get under the skin of campaign aides, and Cruz himself had a highly contentious interview on Tuesday with Sean Hannity, who pressed Cruz on the ethics of his delegate wrangling.
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    But Cruz is charging forward in Maryland with more delegate targeting. Surveys there show him similarly down by double digits, and sometimes trailing Kasich, but at least four districts stand out to Cruz allies and unaligned Republicans in the state.
    There's the largely rural Sixth District, stretching from the western panhandle to Washington suburbs. The deeply conservative Eastern Shore. the First District and the only one represented by a Republican. And the Fourth and Seventh Districts, largely black and Democratic, present the same chances to win delegates in places even if they have very few Republican voters.
    And it's not just about Tuesday: An aggressive Maryland campaign is seen as likely to spill over into bordering states later in the calendar. Republicans in West Virginia could easily drive to an event in the panhandle, while earned media in eastern Maryland could influence voters in New Jersey or Delaware, a state that might not get a Cruz rally of its own.
    That gives the Texas senator some enticement to play hard here and deny Trump from getting closer to the 1,237 delegates for the nomination -- even as some prominent Cruz allies concede he is largely in a hole statewide.
    Stephen Waugh, a Maryland state senator, reflected the fairly pessimistic lens through which some Cruz leaders here say they view the upcoming northeastern primaries, only saying: "Trump I believe is the favorite, but he can pick up some delegates."
    But that may be enough to keep him from arriving in Indiana empty-handed. The Hoosier State was circled long ago on the Cruz campaign's calendar. Cruz's father was there last weekend and Cruz himself will be in Indianapolis Thursday. And on Friday his shop will open a "Camp Cruz," the dorm-like accommodations they used to house volunteers for their more retail-heavy operations in places like Iowa and Wisconsin.
    Mike Close, a 63-year-old real-estate appraiser here, said he's only moderately hopeful that Cruz could make it through Trump's romp of the Northeast.
    "I wouldn't count Cruz out, because he's very well organized and very smart," he said as he waited for Cruz to speak, "but it just looks like Trump is still the 800-pound gorilla."