LEWISTON, Maine — Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz dealt a blow to primary front-runner Donald Trump on Saturday by romping to victory in Maine’s caucuses.
It’s a surprising win for Cruz — the ultraconservative Texas senator’s first in New England — and likely a symptom of Maine’s closed caucus system and backlash from evangelicals against Trump, the ostentatious billionaire who is backed by Gov. Paul LePage.
He’ll get 12 of the Maine Republican Party’s 23 delegates to the national convention after winning 45.9 percent of votes. Trump, with 32.6 percent, will get nine delegates. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, with 12.2 percent, will get two delegates and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who got 8 percent of votes, finished below the 10 percent threshold needed to get delegates.
“Hopefully, we’ll help tip the tide so that the nation will see what a great man, what a great president Ted Cruz would be,” said Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, a Cruz backer who introduced him at an Orono rally on Friday.
The result for Cruz was hard to predict in a race that has been dominated — both at the ballot box and in the media — by Trump, who is leading the race and won primaries in Maine’s neighboring states of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.
But unlike those states, Maine’s political parties use a caucus system that’s closed to voters who aren’t members of the party, which for Republicans leaves more power in the hands of grass-roots conservatives.
That’s Cruz’s base: He’s a self-proclaimed “constitutional conservative” who is against abortion and same-sex marriage and has criticized Trump for his “New York values,” saying Trump can’t be a true conservative because he’s from New York City.
Trump has been greeted with similar suspicion by the Christian Civic League of Maine, which didn’t endorse a candidate but signed onto an open letter to Trump — who identified as pro-choice before reversing that stance — pressing him for specific policy views.
Carroll Conley, the Christian Civic League of Maine’s executive director who said he recently decided to support Cruz, said “pandering” would be “a kind word” to use for Trump’s appeals to evangelicals and said his bombastic style has turned off many.
“I think people are saying, ‘I don’t want to be identified with that,’” Conley said.
The Rev. Lester Dow, who is the pastor of Richmond Corner Baptist Church and supported Cruz, praised his candidate for his character, saying he’s “level-headed” and “stands for the things I stand for,” mentioning his anti-abortion stance.
Of Trump, Dow said the businessman’s focus on deal-making — he wrote “The Art of the Deal,” a best-selling business book and often touts that prowess as a key qualification for the White House — makes it difficult to trust him.
“If he’s always making deals, how is he going to maintain that conservative stance?” Dow said. “It makes you wonder, makes you a little skeptical.”
The Cruz win came in what the party billed as record turnout — just under 18,700 people voted this year compared to less than 5,600 in 2012, according to Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett, who announced results at a party event in Lewiston.
Bangor’s Husson University was packed with at least 2,000 people at the GOP caucus for Penobscot County — a crowd size that thrilled U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
Poliquin said he thought the high turnout for the caucus was a sign that “people think that this country is going in the wrong direction.” He hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the race and declined to say who he caucused for.
In Bangor, Trump supporter Barak Gurney of Veazie repeated some of the anti-establishment themes that have propelled the candidate into the front ranks of the party.
“When the establishment comes out against somebody, it means that they must be doing something good,” Gurney said Saturday.
But in Presque Isle, where Republicans from central Aroostook County caucused, Mark Strelka of Fort Fairfield spoke in support of Cruz, praising his economic ideas — including a flat, 10 percent income tax — and his tough immigration and foreign policy stances.
“Ted Cruz will not compromise away our religious liberty or any of our bill of rights,” Strelka said.
BDN writers Nick Sambides Jr. and Anthony Brino contributed to this report.