Anti-Trump alliance off to a rocky start
© Greg Nash

An uneasy alliance between Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE and John Kasich meant to block Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s path to the GOP presidential nomination got off to a rough start on Monday.

After Trump’s two final rivals announced a deal intended to better Cruz’s chance of winning Indiana’s primary, Kasich suggested during a campaign stop in Philadelphia that his supporters in Indiana should vote for him regardless. 

“I’ve never told them not to vote for me,” Kasich said at a diner in Philadelphia. “They ought to vote for me.”

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Trump, for his part, seized on the pact as obvious collusion, using it to buttress one of the central claims of his campaign: that he and his supporters are the targets of establishment GOP forces conspiring against them. 

“So they colluded, and, actually, I was happy because it shows how weak they are; it shows how pathetic they are,” the front-running candidate said at a rally in Rhode Island on Monday. 

“If you collude in business, or if you collude in the stock market, they put you in jail. But in politics, because it’s a rigged system, because it’s a corrupt enterprise, in politics you’re allowed to collude,” he added.

The Cruz-Kasich plan won poor reviews from Republican insiders, who expressed considerable skepticism it would work. Several drew attention to the marked ideological and stylistic differences between the Texas senator and the Ohio governor.

“It remains to be seen how effective this is going to be,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy. “Can the average Kasich supporter stomach voting for Cruz? Can the average Cruz supporter stomach voting for Kasich? We just don’t know.”

The firm Judy works for, North Star Opinion Research, was affiliated with the now-defunct presidential campaign of Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE (R).

Trump is enjoying another strong spell in his campaign. He won his native New York by a thumping margin last week, taking at least 89 of the 95 delegates up for grabs. The billionaire is also expected to sweep across the five states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions that are voting Tuesday: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Cruz and Kasich hope to slow his progress after Tuesday. The idea is for Cruz to stop Trump in Indiana. In exchange, Cruz is agreeing to not campaign in New Mexico and Oregon, where Kasich will focus his efforts. 

Most experts believe that the crux of the Cruz-Kasich deal is Indiana, where Kasich canceled two rallies that had been scheduled for Tuesday. It offers 57 delegates, five more than New Mexico (24) and Oregon (28) combined. 

Importantly, the Hoosier State’s delegates are allotted on a winner-take-most basis: The statewide winner takes 30 delegates immediately, with three more to be claimed by the winner of each one of the state’s nine congressional districts. The primary is set for May 3.

“The statewide winner is going to get 30 delegates off the bat, so that’s a pretty significant play there,” said University of Georgia political science lecturer Josh Putnam, an expert on the delegate system who runs a blog on the subject, Frontloading HQ.

In the RealClearPolitics polling average in the state, Trump leads by 6.3 points. But Kasich has been showing respectable strength there. In the three most recent major polls, he has registered between 16 percent and 22 percent support.

Strategists in Indiana raise serious questions as to how much of that support will now go to Cruz. They note that the areas in which Kasich had been expected to be strong — the suburbs of Indianapolis and other major cities like Evansville — look like inhospitable ground for an evangelical social conservative such as Cruz.

“I think the Kasich people are now ... left choosing between two people who they see as unappealing,” said Mike Murphy, a GOP operative in the state who worked with Jeb Bush’s now-suspended campaign. “I have talked to a lot of friends today who are stunned and puzzled and kind of adrift: ‘What do we do now?’ ”

Another Republican strategist in the state who requested anonymity and is not affiliated with any of the three candidates said, “I think it’s a bit of an open question as to whether this deal will take. I’ve got people who say, ‘Yes, I will do anything to stop Trump.’ And others who say, ‘What in the world is the party coming to?’ They view Cruz as unsatisfactory as a nominee but Trump as unfathomable.”

Still, that strategist emphasized the result in the state is anybody’s guess. Asked whom he would bet on, he replied, “I wouldn’t put a nickel on the outcome.”

There is also the question of whether the machinations put into motion by Cruz and Kasich could cause disaffection. Dave Ober, a Republican state representative in Indiana, tweeted Sunday night: “This election is garbage. I voted early and then they cut a deal a week before election day.”

A Cruz win in Indiana could be enough to stymie Trump’s efforts to get to the magic number of 1,237 delegates. 

If Trump does hit that goal, he will be able to claim the presidential nomination on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention, set for Cleveland in July. Experts in the delegate process believe he has a challenging but achievable path to 1,237. The answer will likely only be known after the last day of the Republican primary process, June 7, when California and New Jersey are among the states voting.

Meanwhile, the national party is doing its best to stay out of the flap over the Cruz-Kasich accord.

“The role of the RNC is to be a fair and transparent arbiter of the process,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Lindsay Walters in an email to The Hill. “Each campaign has to employ the strategy they feel is best for their candidate.”