The crusade to stop Donald Trump has finally landed on the nuclear option. The campaigns for Ted Cruz and John Kasich both announced Sunday that they will join forces and divide up some of the upcoming primary states in an effort to block the Republican frontrunner from winning the nomination.
Both campaigns issued bombshell statements outlining the plan within minutes of each other on Sunday night. Cruz will focus on Indiana, which votes on May 2, and Kasich will be left alone to campaign in Oregon and New Mexico, which will vote in May and June, both campaigns said.
"Donald Trump doesn't have the support of a majority of Republicans...but he currently does have almost half the delegates because he's benefited from the existing primary system," Kasich's campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in a statement. In order to stop Trump, "we will shift our campaign's resources West and give the Cruz campaign a clear path in Indiana."
The goal is to force a contested convention, Weaver's statement said.
Several hours later, Trump fired off a characteristic response. The alliance was "sad," a "horrible act of desperation," and shows how "weak" Kasich and Cruz's campaigns are, he said in a statement.
"Collusion is often illegal in many other industries and yet these two Washington insiders have had to revert to collusion in order to stay alive," Trump said.
The Cruz-Kasich alliance comes just after the New York primary, in which Trump defeated his opponents by a stunning 35-points. Kasich has long been out of the race to win the nomination before the convention in Cleveland this July, but Tuesday night's defeat in the Empire State made it mathematically impossible for Cruz to do so either.
The strategy rests on Cruz winning Indiana, which awards its 92 delegates on a winner-take-all basis. If Cruz can get the most votes there, denying Trump a single delegate, it would make a dent in Trump's path to getting 1,237 delegates before the convention. But if Trump wins Indiana and sweeps all of the delegates, that could put him even closer to locking Kasich and Cruz out of the convention.
Cruz has been campaigning hard in the state and will be holding four events there on Monday. The super PACs supporting him plan to spend at least $3.1 million on ads in Indiana ahead of next Tuesday's primary. Kasich, meanwhile, has suspended his operation in the state and will hold several events in Oregon instead this week.
The partnership shows not only how much Trump's opponents think he can actually win, but also just how terrified they are by that prospect. Cruz's campaign manager, Jeff Roe, said in his statement that Trump becoming the Republican nominee would be "a sure disaster."
It's not entirely clear that Kasich and Cruz's risky plan will work. Trump is leading in three out of four recent Indiana polls and is also favored to win big in the upcoming primaries this Tuesday. The swath of states voting on April 26 — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — are clustered in the northeast and represent favorable territory for Trump, who just came off a huge win in New York last week. Pennsylvania is the biggest prize on Tuesday and Trump currently has a double digit lead over Cruz, according to an average of recent polls.
Cruz told radio host Dana Loesch last week that Trump needs to win Indiana in order to get 1,237 delegates before the convention. "If Trump loses Indiana, he can't get to 1,237," he said.
But Trump currently has 844 delegates and needs just another 393 to reach that goal before the convention. There are another 674 delegates up for grabs in the remaining primary contests.
What's more, this public "Crusich" alliance plays directly into Trump's argument that the system is against him and that he is the only populist candidate. The central rallying cry of Trump's campaign has been his accusation that "Washington elites" are controlling the system and taking power away from American voters. Trump wasted no time in making it clear that that this is exactly what is happening with Kasich and Cruz's plan.
"When two candidates who have no path to victory get together to stop a candidate who is expanding the party by millions of voters, (all of whom will drop out if I am not in the race) it is yet another example of everything that is wrong in Washington and our political system," he said.
Cruz and Kasich allies, as well as other establishment types in Washington, have been rumbling about a coordinated effort to stop Trump for weeks, but an alliance has never been made this explicit and public before. The last time it appeared that Trump's opponents were working together was just ahead of the March 15 primaries in Florida and Ohio. Cruz steered clear of campaigning in Florida and Ohio, so that Kasich and Senator Marco Rubio were left alone to win their home states. But Cruz's team denied that there were trying to help the other candidates to stop Trump. Kasich won Ohio (the first and last state he has won so far), but Rubio ended up suffering a humiliating loss in Florida to Trump that ended his campaign.
Kasich's team first approached Cruz's campaign about forging an alliance after those March 15 primaries, but Cruz was slow to warm to the idea, according to CNN. It was not until the Republican National Committee meeting last week that the two finalized the agreement and their teams spent the weekend fully hashing out the details.
The Cruz campaign has carefully prepared talking points to sell this plan. One of his press staffers, Alice Stewart, sent an email Saturday to campaign surrogates with detailed instructions of how to respond to questions about the Kasich deal. The email, which was leaked to Wall Street Journal reporter Reid Epstein, stressed staying positive and includes a handy chart of what to say to the public.
"When receiving questions or responding to assertions favorable to our opponent ... messengers should respond and immediately pivot back to [their own message]," it instructed.
"It is critical that everyone follow the talking points to a letter," Stewart wrote. "Please do not stray from them."
Barely twelve hours after the plan was announced, there were signs that it could begin to unravel. During a campaign stop in Philadelphia, Kasich said that his campaign merely announced where they're spending their resources, but that Indiana voters still "ought to vote for me."
"What's the big deal?" Kasich said. "I'm not campaigning in Indiana and he's not campaigning in those other states. That's all."
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLbecker