For GOP, Cruz May Not Be Best Alternative to Trump

For GOP, Cruz May Not Be Best Alternative to Trump
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While the Republican Party is trying to figure out what to do about Donald Trump, it may have a bigger issue on its hands. 

Ted Cruz, who was the party’s anti-establishment firebrand before Trump became a dominating factor, is rising in the polls and starting to become best positioned for the nomination--if the current front-runner ever fades.

But the leading alternative to Trump is what many in the party see as “Trump lite.” And this sets up an interesting pickle for the GOP: some Republicans believe a Cruz nomination would be equal to a Trump nomination, if not worse.

So with less than two months to go until voting begins, Republicans are staring at the real possibility of Cruz--the senator many in the party not only openly disdain but also believe would cost them the general election--as possibly being their only hope against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“It would be the worst possible outcome for the Republican Party,” says longtime Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos.

Castellanos and others fear the Texas senator’s strategy of appealing directly to the base, with the belief that galvanizing and mobilizing conservatives is the key to winning the election, will alienate the broader electorate.

“If Cruz is the nominee, there isn't a single young person, woman, or Hispanic anywhere who will want to put on our jersey,” Castellanos says.

“I think Cruz and Trump are basically the same and will have the same impact on our viability as a party,” says John Feehery, a Republican strategist and veteran of Capitol Hill.

Former senator and onetime GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, who is backing Bush, suggested he wouldn’t even vote if Cruz were to be his party’s nominee. “I might oversleep that day,” he told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

Cruz is working his way to consolidating the conservative support and has long maintained that the reason Republicans lost the past two presidential elections is because the party’s most conservative voters felt uninspired by establishment candidates and stayed home.

“If we nominate another candidate in the mold of Bob Dole or John McCain or Mitt Romney, the Democrats will win,” Cruz said last week.

On Thursday, Cruz received the vaunted endorsement of prominent Iowa Republican Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Christian conservative group, The Family Leader. The endorsement, combined with official backing from Iowa Rep. Steve King and Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace, provide Cruz with powerful currency among the first caucus state’s most conservative and evangelical voters.

Cruz, an evangelical pastor’s son, is steadily gaining on Trump in Iowa, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. A Monmouth University poll this week found Cruz in the lead and winning that key constituency of evangelicals, who are slowly turning away from Ben Carson. And a CNN poll showed Cruz moving to second place behind Trump.

While the Iowa caucuses hardly predict the nominee, a win there could accelerate his long-term strategy, and it could help him do well in South Carolina, which has historically picked the nominee (save for Newt Gingrich in 2012). 

Beyond Iowa, Cruz is focused and well organized in a half a dozen, delegate-rich southern states, including Texas, which will vote together on March 1, the so-called SEC primary.

Additionally, Cruz’s campaign is among the best financed, second only to the campaign of Jeb Bush, which hasn’t seen much return on its investment so far. The financial component gives Cruz’s campaign durability. Past Iowa winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum found it difficult to capitalize on victories without the vital financial backing.

But a key element of Cruz’s strategy--one that is of large concern to opponents--is that he has long positioned himself as the heir to Trump’s support. He has refrained from criticizing Trump for fear of alienating the front-runner’s supporters. At the same time, Cruz has aimed to convert Trumpites by making the case that he has been the lone true conservative, anti-establishment fighter in the race--one that has fought Washington from the inside.

Cruz has started to make electability a selling point of his campaign and has been working to be more likeable on the trail. But the more Cruz drafts behind Trump, the more he risks alienating other voters in the party, opponents say.

The task of courting Trump supporters while also distinguishing himself is difficult. The New York Times reported Thursday that Cruz told attendees at a closed-door fundraiser of his concerns about Trump and Carson’s “judgment” and preparedness to be commander in chief. Soon after it was reported, the Cruz campaign released a statement calling the Times’ piece “misleading,” but without describing what exactly was misleading.

“In the course of a presidential election, the voters are going to make a decision about every candidate. And ultimately the decision is, who has the right judgment and the right experience to serve as commander-in-chief?" Cruz said in the statement. "Every one of us who is running is being assessed by the voters under that metric, and that is exactly why we have a democratic election to make that determination.”

Marco Rubio has focused much of his time recently on curbing Cruz’s conservative support in an effort to build a campaign appealing to multiple factions of the GOP. The two have sparred over immigration and national security, with Rubio painting Cruz now as a “neo-isolationist.”

The persisting problem for Republicans opposed to Trump or Cruz, however, is that there has not been consolidation around an alternative to them.

Right now, no candidate is expected to get out of the race before voting begins in Iowa or New Hampshire, leaving the large GOP field intact. And the race in the Granite State is especially unclear. Chris Christie, who has been gaining ground there, could be a wild card for the establishment vote. Meanwhile, Cruz has already surpassed most of his closest rivals.

“The challenge of the party is that there are so many candidates in play that it’s very difficult for establishment candidates to gain consensus at this point,” says GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “What’s dangerous about having Cruz as our Republican nominee is he’s just trying to get Republicans to vote and not appealing to other voters. He has a losing strategy of running to the right should he be the nominee.”

While the party faithful are concerned a Cruz nominee would cost them the election, they aren’t ringing the alarm bells just yet. For one, there is now a feeling that Cruz isn’t as bad as Trump in terms of controversy and a propensity to go rogue. 

“For many of us, Trump is a bigger problem,” says Peter Wehner, a veteran of the past three Republican administrations and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Cruz is at least “a serious guy who has had experience and is not unstable.”

“I don't think there's anything that could be worse for Republicans than Trump being our nominee,” says Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who has served as a former deputy chief of staff for Eric Cantor and a Republican National Committee official. “Mathematically, it’s not possible.”

One difference between Trump and Cruz, Heye says, “is Trump is somebody who will have real problems coalescing the Republican Party. He will have real problems getting people to endorse him. I don't see those same problems with Cruz.”

And also, Trump is still stealing all the oxygen and preventing Cruz from leading.

“For a lot of people who would be concerned about Cruz, they are much more concerned about Trump,” says Wehner. “The No. 1, 2 and 3 problems are Donald Trump, Donald Trump, and Donald Trump."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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