AUSTIN, Texas — If Texas is Ted Cruz country, the state's Republican convention is its capital.
At the biennial gathering in 2012, thousands of delegates booed when Gov. Rick Perry dared salute Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who was then battling tea party upstart Cruz in the GOP primary for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Two years later, the same convention felt like a coming out party for Cruz's not-yet-announced presidential campaign. He won the 2016 straw poll by 31 points and delegates waited hours in a line that snaked through the cavernous exhibit hall just to shake hands with their senator.
But when 7,000-plus Republicans from across Texas converge on the Dallas convention center beginning Thursday, four years of Cruz coronations may feel like they're culminating in a let-down. It won't be Cruz's political wake, but the anticipation of bigger things to come for Texas' brightest conservative star will be tempered by Donald Trump so recently bouncing Cruz from the presidential race.
"There's going to be a lot of disappointment," said James Bernsen, a GOP consultant who was spokesman for Cruz's 2012 Senate campaign.
Cruz's inability to topple Trump still stings — as does his failure to woo a Republican establishment desperate to coalesce around any Trump alternative, even when the Texas senator was the last major candidate besides the billionaire businessman who had a viable path to the party's presidential nomination.
But Cruz did far better than national pundits expected when the presidential race began, likely won't face a credible challenger for Senate re-election in 2018 and could mount a second presidential bid in 2020. He also remains the darling of the tea party activists who will dominate the convention, and counts among his most-enthusiastic supporters both Perry and Dewhurst's successors, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
"It will be a 'welcome home' reunion," said Morgan McComb, a North Texas tea party activist and early backer of Cruz's 2012 Senate campaign. "Our love for him has only grown."
Asked about lingering sadness since Cruz left the White House race, McComb evoked Trump: "We are very sad for our nation. There was a clear choice and I tremble for my country."
Cruz has laid low since losing Indiana's primary and dropping out in Indianapolis last week. That means his scheduled address at the state convention could be the first time the political world has seen him since his concession speech — which struck an optimistic tone but didn't mention Trump by name.
The Dallas gathering won't crackle with the same competitive energy it might have had Cruz remained in the race. That's because the senator's supporters were gearing up to ensure that all the state's 155 presidential delegates went to Cruz — even though he only won 104 delegates during Texas' March 1 primary, compared to 48 for Trump and three for Marco Rubio.
Though he's now officially out, Cruz partisans will nonetheless control the Dallas convention, where the Texas delegation to July's Republican National Convention in Cleveland will be chosen. Their ranks should be numerous enough to ensure no non-Cruz supporters get Cleveland invites.
Texas Republican rules require delegates to initially vote according to the state's primary results at the national convention. But if no candidate had secured the 1,237 delegates necessary to lock up the GOP presidential nomination, that could have triggered a multi-round convention floor fight where all Texas delegates may have eventually flipped to Cruz.
Now, a contested Cleveland convention looks like a pipe dream, and that means at least 48 Texas delegates will vote for Trump — even if they aren't crazy about doing so.
Randy Dunning, a Cruz supporter and Texas Republican Party executive committee member, said at least one Texan vying to be an alternate delegate to Cleveland dropped out because he didn't want to attend a "Trump pom-pom session."
Dunning, himself still in the running for Cleveland, said the stakes will remain high in Dallas since those picked for the national convention will still shape the Republican Party platform and "hold Trump's feet to the fire on conservative principles."
"Coming in, he evoked a lot of conservative tropes and those are markers he's laid on the table," Dunning said. "I want to make sure he pays up."