After Cruz's Campaign, Texas Republicans Strive For Unity

Coming together, at least for now, is not easy. That was on full display over the past three days here at the Texas GOP convention, where a party once solidly behind favorite son Ted Cruz in the presidential race grappled with uniting behind his fiercest rival and now the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump.

Vietnam veteran Jim Faulkner of Calhoun County signs a Trump for President banner at the Republican Party of Texas event in Dallas May 13, 2016.
Vietnam veteran Jim Faulkner of Calhoun County signs a Trump for President banner at the Republican Party of Texas event in Dallas May 13, 2016.  The Texas Tribune/Bob Daemmrich

DALLAS — Coming together, at least for now, is not easy.

That was on full display over the past three days here at the Texas GOP convention, where a party once solidly behind favorite son Ted Cruz in the presidential race grappled with uniting behind his fiercest rival and now the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump. There was little visible resistance to Trump, but the ambivalence loomed large over the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center less than two weeks after Cruz bowed out of the race. 

In speech after speech, statewide officials and lawmakers took varying approaches to Trump, few offering a warm embrace. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was the most emphatic in multiple appearances all week, actively calling on Republicans to support the nominee. By week's end, he was in touch with the Trump camp over the transgender bathroom issue. 

But other Republicans were less enthusiastic. Gov. Greg Abbott did not say Trump's name but issued a call for unity. Still others, like Attorney General Ken Paxton, steered clear of Trump altogether, opting for safer territory by blasting away at President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton. 

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One exception was Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton, a co-chair of Cruz's campaign in Texas, who ended up delivering one of the most pro-Trump speeches of the convention, urging Texas Republicans not to "wallow in the setbacks." 

I'm going to vote for our nominee not because of the man that he is today, but because of the president I am hopeful all of us can help him become.— Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton

"This party is bigger than one man," Sitton said Saturday afternoon. "This party has been built for 200 years by people like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, by people like me, grassroots activists who’ve put 30, 40 and 50 years of your lives into shaping this party into what it is today."

“I'm going to vote for our nominee not because of the man that he is today, but because of the president I am hopeful all of us can help him become," Sitton added.

Cruz addressed the convention Saturday afternoon, receiving a rock star's reception as he urged supporters not to give up hope on the conservative movement despite the outcome of the primary. He did not mention Trump, let alone the presidential race, and in an interview earlier Saturday with The Texas Tribune, Cruz suggested he was in no hurry to support the presumptive nominee. 

Trump's campaign dispatched Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to the convention, calling in a Cruz ally in the Senate who ultimately endorsed Trump earlier this year. Hundreds of delegates treated Sessions with disinterest, and streamed out of the convention hall during his remarks. 

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But thousands of delegates stayed and listened to Sessions, who heaped praise on Cruz, calling him "our almost-presumptive Republican presidential nominee" and vowing to continue collaborating with him in Congress. 

"Let's put this tough primary behind us," Sessions said. "It was tough, no doubt about it. But we can — and will — unite."

"It was outstanding," Plano delegate Robert Kriss said in an interview after the speech. "I think each speech is trending more and more towards Trump and that is what this whole organization has to do." 

Kriss voted for Cruz in the primary, but he said he is on board with Trump: "Without reservation, they have to back the candidate that the people want, and looks like the people are going to go with Trump, and Texas has to do the same thing." 

Denton delegate Jesse Davis disagreed, saying that Trump must become "a more normal candidate." 

"Right now, he's not there. He's not there for me," Davis said. "I don't know what I will do in November yet, but right now Donald Trump is not a mainstream candidate. He's far from it, even with a major party nomination." 

And despite Sessions' pleading, there were signs all over the convention of raw feelings stemming from the fate of Cruz's campaign. Cruz's campaign booth was covered with thank-you notes from supporters by the end of the convention — so many that staffers had to put up clothing lines to hold them all. Some urged him to get back in the race; others suggested he run for president again in 2020. 

At the Trump campaign's booth, passersby were encouraged to sign a large banner bearing the message, "Defeat Hillary! Vote Trump!" Next to the banner, a placard informed convention-goers: "This banner will be proudly displayed at the National Trump Headquarters. It represents the commitment of Texas Republicans' to unity and solidarity in the effort to defeat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats this November." 

Read MoreScenes from the Texas GOP convention (photo essay)

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Even with the effort by Trump's campaign, some Cruz supporters seemed not ready to even broach the question of whether they will get behind Trump. Among them was the candidate's father, Rafael Cruz, who spoke candidly during a speech Thursday night at the convention about his grappling with the end of his son's campaign. 

"This has been a very difficult week for me, and the pain has been very real," Rafael Cruz said, invoking Bible verse about how "weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." 

Rafael Cruz added: "There has been weeping. There have been tears — for more than one night. And while I'm not quite yet at the joy stage, I'm getting there very quickly."

Amid the tension, there were bouts of levity. Addressing the convention Thursday night, Cruz's short-lived running mate, Carly Fiorina, acknowledged the speculation over which Republicans are falling in behind Trump before teasing a "big announcement."

"I am endorsing," she said, pausing briefly, "for Senate in 2018 — Ted Cruz."