Cruz and the Convention Chess Game

Cruz and the Convention Chess Game
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Armed with newfound, if tepid, support from unlikely sources over the past few weeks, Ted Cruz has touted himself as a Republican uniter whose campaign represents a broad and ideologically diverse spectrum of the party. 

But with the GOP aiming for a contested convention in July, there are mixed signals as to whether Cruz is the consensus choice in that scenario or simply the party’s vehicle to Cleveland, only to be ditched later. 

While Donald Trump still has a viable path to securing the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, a loss to Cruz in Wisconsin next week would make his road longer and rockier. For his part, the Texas senator has shown particular savvy when it comes to delegate strategy, as evidenced by his campaign’s success in scooping up “free agent” delegates in Louisiana last week, catching the Trump team off guard. 

Marco Rubio is still working to prevent Trump from the nomination by holding on to the delegates he earned while still in the race, also signaling he might have a role to play at the convention.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to give the Republican Party reasons to prevent him from becoming the official standard-bearer. During a televised town-hall gathering Wednesday, he advocated punishing women who have abortions if the procedure is banned, a statement that offended both opponents and supporters of abortion rights. 

During a similar event the night before, the billionaire businessman suggested that Japan and South Korea should have weapons of mass destruction, saying, "It's going to happen anyway." And he identified education and health care as issues in which federal government should play a key role, before almost immediately reversing course. This all came as his campaign manager was charged with assaulting a reporter.

The moves and statements by Trump have cast a kinder light on Cruz in the eyes of Republicans, something that might have been unimaginable just months ago.

Cruz has a narrow path to winning the nomination before the convention and is preparing for a contest there. The first-term senator has maintained that only he himself and Trump would be qualified for the nomination by this summer, citing a 2012 rule that required the nominee to have won a majority in at least eight states, which would  render John Kasich, or any other candidates, ineligible. Cruz has won majorities in six states thus far, but insists he will reach the threshold by June. Campaigning in Manhattan last week, he told reporters that if party leaders tried to put forth another candidate, “you would see the voters revolt, quite rightly.”

But the rules for the 2016 convention have not been finalized. “The rules set by the 2012 Convention Rules Committee are a placeholder until the new convention rules committee meets in July,” said Lindsay Walters, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. 

The RNC has largely stayed behind the scenes as the dramatic race for the nomination has unfolded. All of the remaining candidates have backed away from a pledge to support the eventual nominee, putting an even brighter spotlight on the convention scenarios and raising questions about the party’s ability to unify.

“This is up to the voters and delegates elected by the grassroots to decide, but our nominee is likely to be one of the three candidates running for president now,” Walters told RCP.

Half-hearted endorsements by Lindsay Graham, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and others have raised questions about whether party leaders want Cruz to be president or whether they want to stop Trump from securing the necessary delegates. What’s more, Cruz has not received much more support from his congressional colleagues. And while the floating of people such as Paul Ryan or Romney as possible convention saviors is but a pipe dream, it does speak to discontent within the GOP about its options.

Scott Walker garnered attention last week when he said that “if it's an open convention, it's very likely it would be someone who's not currently running.” The Wisconsin governor seemed to walk back that possibility slightly when he endorsed Cruz this week ahead of his home state’s all important primary—which figures to serve as a last stand for the Never Trump movement. "I wanted to make sure I was for someone, not just against someone,” Walker said in announcing is support of Cruz. 

Kasich might hope that Cruz is a mere vehicle and not a galvanizing force. The Ohio governor’s only hope of becoming the nominee rests at the convention, as it is now mathematically impossible for him to secure the requisite delegates before then. His campaign argues that both Trump and Cruz would be unelectable in November, which would also have consequences for down-ballot GOP candidates.

“If you looked at the history of conventions,” said Kasich spokesman Mike Schrimpf, “in the majority of the cases the delegate leader does not wind up with the nomination and it’s often the most electable candidate who winds up with the nomination.”

Kasich recently hired operatives Stu Spencer and Charlie Black, both former Ronald Reagan advisers, to guide his convention strategy. Spencer aided Gerald Ford in the contested party gathering of 1976. The campaign is eyeing unplugged and unbound delegates to the convention.

But the operation will have to contend with Cruz’s proven infrastructure. The Texas lawmaker’s ability to acquire additional delegates in Louisiana at the state party’s convention after the primary demonstrated his prowess. Trump had won the state, but the campaign didn’t account for rules that freed up delegates previously allocated to candidates who had dropped out. Trump threatened to sue, even though Cruz simply followed the rules. The real estate mogul then hired veteran GOP operative Paul Manafort to run his delegate effort, seen as an admission of the Louisiana mistake and the prospect of a contested convention.  

There are similar opportunities to pick up delegates, including in state conventions in North Dakota this weekend and in Colorado next week. Cruz is planning to attend both in person, while his rivals are sending surrogates. The senator's plan underscores a dedication to the delegate hunt and foreshadows his capabilities at the convention. 

“The Cruz people are better organized and more familiar with how to win actual contests within the Republican Party, so I think certainly that if there is a second ballot, Cruz is going to get considerably more votes than he would have received on the first ballot,” said Morton Blackwell, an RNC member and longtime veteran of GOP conventions, and also a Cruz supporter.

Cruz and his backers would likely revolt if the committee did not keep in place the rule from 2012, which was proposed by Romney in an effort to prevent Ron Paul from contesting the nomination at the convention.

Blackwell fought against the rule at the time because he believed it to be overreach by the establishment and a disenfranchisement of voters who wanted someone else. After trying again earlier this year to change the rule, Blackwell now believes it’s too late. “At this point it would be wrong to change the rules,” he told RCP.

“I think it would be a horrible reaction, and I think it could split the Republican Party,” Blackwell said of the prospect of another candidate being brought forth. He pointed to the irony that rules designed to promote the once-leading candidates such as Jeb Bush have helped non-establishment figures like Trump and Cruz.

Even if there were a consensus alternative to the current cast of contenders, it would require both Trump and Cruz to give in to someone who won fewer contests than they did, or even none at all. 

There is also a sense within the party that biting the bullet and coalescing around Cruz is the best option at this point, especially where the party platform is concerned. Graham has justified his support by contending that Cruz, at least, is a conservative. Trump remains wildly unpredictable and holds views at odds with core tenets of the GOP.

“There’s also a school of thought that if the Republican voters are intent on flying the plane into a mountain, let’s do it with Cruz and not Trump,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist and former communications director for the party’s Senate campaign arm.

Walsh said that while opinion within the party on how to proceed at the convention is still mixed, there is a belief that choosing Cruz could settle an argument over whether the GOP is better off with a nominee who is strictly conservative or one who carries broader appeal to some of the groups the party has been trying to court.

The convention has become something of a shifting chess board, with no good moves in sight.

“If it's an open convention, and we go through an arduous multi-ballot exercise to select our nominee, it’s bound to be a problematic road to the White House,” says Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

“If Cruz, Kasich and others can keep Trump from getting the required number of delegates and they emerge with a negotiated ticket, it is likely to leave [with a ticket] from a very divided convention.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited the number of states in which Ted Cruz won a majority of the votes. He has won a majority in six states, not four.

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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