Cruz's Wins Force GOP to Reconsider Him

Cruz's Wins Force GOP to Reconsider Him
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Many elected Republicans and party leaders have long viewed the hypothetical option of Ted Cruz or Donald Trump as their presidential nominee as something of a Sophie’s choice, each alternative seemingly unbearable.

Cruz has made more enemies than friends among his Senate colleagues and other Washington Republicans, many of whom view him as duplicitous and scheming. Trump, for his part, has executed a hostile takeover of the party and its nominating process, with divisive rhetoric and unorthodox tactics propelling his rise.

“It's like being shot or poisoned,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said in January of potentially choosing between the two.

But, confronted with a new political reality in which Trump and Cruz have emerged as dominant candidates in the Republican presidential primary, this view is changing — and, increasingly, Cruz is looking less like a death sentence and more like a lifesaver to many anti-Trump Republicans.

The calculation is more pragmatic than visceral. As other campaigns have sputtered or crashed, Cruz has cruised, racking up delegates nearly on pace with Trump and, in the process, beating the celebrity businessman in more states than any other candidate. Meanwhile, the paths for either Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Kasich have appeared to narrow, at least short of a contested convention.

Now, even Graham counts himself among those who think Cruz is the candidate best positioned to fell Trump, if not the only one.

“I care enough about the party and the future of the conservative movement to swallow my pride and say, Ted Cruz is making the most persuasive case that he can stop Trump,” Graham told RealClearPolitics on Monday. “The field has to consolidate.”

Cruz has unsurprisingly pitched the same message following recent victories on Super Tuesday and Saturday, calling on Republicans to “unite” and making a thinly veiled appeal for Rubio to drop out. "We’ll continue to amass delegates,” Cruz told reporters, “but what needs to happen is the field needs to continue to narrow.”

There is no shortage of irony in this would-be arranged marriage between Cruz and Republican leaders, whom he has disparaged on the campaign trail as part of a “Washington cartel.” Cruz’s rhetoric has hardly been more measured on Capitol Hill, where he called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor.

His colleagues have often responded in kind, as when Sen. John McCain characterized Cruz as a “wacko bird.” On another occasion, in the throes of the 2013 government shutdown fight, Senate Republicans angrily confronted Cruz at a private luncheon over his work on behalf of Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that bankrolled primaries against some Republican incumbents.

“Cruz embodies the debacles that have damaged the GOP brand in the last few years,” longtime Republican strategist Ed Rogers, now chairman of BGR Group, wrote in the Washington Post last year when Cruz announced his campaign for president. Rogers in particular cited Cruz’s role in the government shutdown and his “harsh tone.”

But that was then. Now, with few options remaining, and with Trump still a nonstarter for most of the party’s heavyweights, Republicans have been forced to give Cruz another look.

Cruz’s campaign last week announced six former Jeb Bush donors as new members of its finance team, with more announcements to come Tuesday.

“As evidenced by Super Saturday, the GOP is coalescing behind Ted because they know he is the best candidate to defeat Trump and the only one who can beat Hillary in November,” said Alice Stewart, a spokesperson for Cruz.

“Coalescing” might still be too strong word, at least for some Republicans.

“I hate to be the turd in the punch bowl,” Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff and campaign manager to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, tweeted last week, “but the idea that Cruz is going to be a consensus alternative to Trump is nonsense.”

Indeed, one prominent segment of the party is pushing for a contested convention to stop Trump, rather than try to eliminate him in regulation time. Mitt Romney all but endorsed that outcome last week when he urged Republicans to support Cruz, Rubio and Kasich in states where each has the best chance of winning — a strategy that would seek to cut into Trump’s share of delegates. Cruz, for his part, has said he will not entertain the idea of a contested convention and is not shaping his campaign strategy around it.

On paper, Cruz and his party’s leadership seem like a feasible match. Cruz has not diverged fundamentally from the party platform on policy; indeed, he has established himself as something of an ideological purist, his detractors would argue. Cruz scores 100 percent on the Heritage Action voting scorecard, which tracks votes on conservative priorities.

Nor is Cruz an outsider in the traditional sense, although he has established himself as one politically: He has worked in government for most of his career, at both the state and federal levels, and got his start on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.

“We all know the establishment hates Ted Cruz,” said Hogan Gidley, a former spokesman for Mike Huckabee. “But the sweet irony there is he’s one of them. He’s just better at hiding it.”

What has separated Cruz from the so-called “Republican establishment” has been less about substance and more about his style, which many Republicans have perceived as grating at best and manipulative at worst.

“The biggest challenge for Ted Cruz is himself,” said one senior Republican operative who does not support Cruz. “He has this innate ability to drive people crazy.”

“It’s not based on ideology,” the Republican added. “It’s based on personality.”

The broad ill will toward Cruz among Republicans has helped to propel his presidential campaign, lending Cruz credibility to run as a senator with an anti-Washington message. Now, it will be Cruz’s challenge to appeal to those same Republicans’ pragmatism and their misgivings about Trump.

And it appears he’s making progress.

“Cruz is not my preference,” Graham said. “Most people like me would rather have Kasich or Rubio. But I just don’t see them being able to take Trump down.”

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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