2020 Race Is On, Starting With Cruz Convention Blowup

2020 Race Is On, Starting With Cruz Convention Blowup
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CLEVELAND — Ted Cruz came here to lay the groundwork for his own presidential ambitions — as did Paul Ryan, Scott Walker and Tom Cotton, many argue.

But after Cruz was booed off the prime-time stage at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night for refusing to endorse Donald Trump, the Texas senator’s political future could be in limbo.

Cruz has made a brand out of irritating the GOP. His call for Republicans to “vote their conscience” Wednesday, along with his refusal to support his former rival who promoted vulgar criticisms of Cruz’s wife and conspiracies about his father, could appeal to Cruz’s loyalists.

But it’s unclear whether his defiance Wednesday night, which overshadowed the debut of vice presidential nominee Mike Pence — a fellow conservative who endorsed Cruz in his home state of Indiana — will benefit or harm his cause.

Cruz’s address cut a direct contrast to Pence’s acceptance speech, in which he effusively praised Trump in an effort to convince the party to unite once and for all behind its nominee.

The two speeches were emblematic of a fight that’s been raging within the party since Trump became the presumptive standard-bearer: whether to toe the party line and support the will of the primary voters in backing a controversial nominee, or stand up to Trump in an effort to preserve the GOP’s traditional, conservative values, regardless of how it affects this year’s election.

Just hours before Cruz’s speech, supporters gave him a rousing reception at an event to thank delegates who backed him this year. They chanted “2020, 2020” at him, and several told RealClearPolitics they thought Cruz would be the immediate front-runner four years from now if Trump lost the election. Some even suggested Cruz could run against Trump in 2020 if he wins but proves to be an ineffective president.

The Texas delegation’s reactions to Cruz’s convention speech were mixed, with some delegates praising him and others expressing disappointment, frustration or outright anger. One told RCP that Cruz “couldn’t put his own ego below that of what our country needs.” Another said she was “extremely disappointed in Senator Cruz. I’m embarrassed for our state.”

Those negative reactions from his home state, and the chorus of boos from the rest of the arena, show that Cruz may face political repercussions for his decision not to endorse Trump during his speech.

Other potential 2020 Republican candidates spent the week in Cleveland visiting with early- and swing-state delegations, introducing themselves to key GOP primary voters and getting an early start on potential campaigns for the next cycle.

Conventions tend to showcase party talent and rising stars. Barack Obama’s 2004 speech enchanted the Democrats, and Marco Rubio launched his White House campaign three years after a well-received convention address in his home state. State delegation gatherings often offer additional platforms for ambitious politicos to quietly test the waters of key primary states.

But this year, the subtlety is virtually gone. With a fractured party and so few of the nominee’s former rivals campaigning for the ticket, several Republicans are wasting no time getting their ducks in a row for the 2020 presidential race.

The 2016 Republican field was the most crowded in memory — something Trump lets no one forget. But if the schedules of some GOPers this week are any indication, the roster of future candidates figures to be long and could invite yet another highly competitive process.

“It is a bit presumptive given that we have a really competitive election in three months, but I don’t begrudge anyone for making friends,” South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore told RCP.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who gave a prime-time address on opening night, has been among the most ubiquitous of the potential candidates at the convention, visiting the delegations of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — the first three caucus and primary states.

At a luncheon for the Iowa contingent in downtown Cleveland, Cotton acknowledged the Hawkeye State’s appeal for aspiring candidates. “Sometimes they’ll pander to Iowa a little bit. I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to say that I’m the only politician who will speak to you this week who loves Iowa so much that I married a girl born in Iowa,” he joked.

The 39-year-old Harvard law grad and Iraq War veteran also stopped by the crucial swing state delegations of Ohio and Florida, spoke at national security-related events around Cleveland, and made the rounds of television interviews. 

Cotton, who spent two years in the House before winning a Senate seat in 2014, rose quickly to prominence last year when he penned an open letter to Iranian leaders opposing the Iran nuclear agreement. Since then, his name has been tossed around as a rising star in the party, a potential vice presidential pick this year, and a top contender for the White House four or eight years from now. His aggressive posture at this year’s convention will only stoke the flames of that speculation. Cotton got the attention of Cody Hoefert, the co-chairman of the Iowa GOP. “He’s articulate, he’s intelligent,” Hoefert told RCP. “This is somebody who’s able to articulate a vision of how we’re going to make America safe."

Unlike some of his fellow aspirants, Cotton has proudly endorsed Trump. Still, in his speech to the Ohio delegates Monday, he didn’t even mention the GOP nominee, and in his address to Iowans the next day, he made only passing references. He declined to answer a question following the Ohio breakfast about why he left out his party’s current nominee.

The senator isn’t the only one who’s been aggressive in courting support for potential runs.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose 2016 presidential run was the most short-lived, is getting a head start on a potential second attempt. Walker visited the early-state delegations and addressed the convention in prime time on Wednesday night, along with Cruz and Marco Rubio, who didn’t attend the convention but appeared via video.

While visiting the South Carolina delegation for breakfast earlier this week, Walker recalled his own White House campaign. Trump “wasn’t my first choice. I was my first choice,” he said.

Walker said he hoped a Republican would be inaugurated in 2017 and serve for the next eight years. But he also hinted at his future. 

“Someone pointed out to me earlier that I could wait 20 years and still be younger than Hillary Clinton,” he told reporters.

“And Donald Trump,” someone noted.

“And Donald Trump for that matter, right,” he said. “I’m in no rush. We will see what God’s calling is in all of that.”

Fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan traveled to various delegations in his role as House speaker, promoting the Republican agenda and vision he crafted for the election year. Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, would become the top-ranking Republican if the party loses the White House and the U.S. Senate in November. His own interests lie in guiding his members and shaping the party for the future, an endeavor that will invite presidential speculation.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has been running something of a counter-campaign to Trump during the convention, visited delegates from New Hampshire, where he finished with a coveted second place in the primary.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who came to the Senate in 2014 as the first female combat veteran in the chamber, was a headliner on the convention’s first night – though her speech got pushed out of prime time – and spoke to the New Hampshire delegation as well as her own. But she insisted nothing should be read into the New Hampshire visit, telling reporters she was simply there to talk up Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who’s in a tough-re-election campaign this year. 

Some of the other potential 2020 candidates kept much lower profiles at the convention. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was a Rubio supporter and thought to be a top potential VP pick this year, met with her own delegation at a breakfast on Wednesday but is not visiting with any of the other early primary states. She did, however, spend one night at the convention.

The GOP primary wasn’t kind to political officeholders, and the general election results will provide presidential aspirants lessons for navigating the road ahead. Trump quashed the hopes of many GOP stars by winning the nomination, but he also helped to elevate the potential of one more. Vice presidential nominee Pence also might be eyeing a spot on the top of the ticket in four years time, depending on the outcome of 2016.

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

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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