Against the Grain

Playing with Fire, Republican Bigwigs Want to Take Out Cruz

Party officials and strategists believe that if Trump wins Iowa, Rubio’s path to the nomination is clearer.

Ted Cruz speaks during a campaign event at Jackson Fairgrounds in Maquoketa, Iowa.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 26, 2016, 5 a.m.

To many out­side ob­serv­ers, the wave of seasoned Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials and strategists sound­ing in­creas­ingly com­fort­able with Don­ald Trump as the GOP’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee is a sign of sur­render.  Wheth­er it’s Iowa Gov. Terry Bran­stad root­ing for Ted Cruz to lose the Iowa caucuses or Or­rin Hatch “com­ing around a little bit” on Trump’s can­did­acy or the paucity of money spent at­tack­ing Trump on the air­waves, it feels like of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton has sided with Trump over Cruz.  

In real­ity, many are try­ing to sal­vage the cam­paign of Sen. Marco Ru­bio (or any oth­er more-main­stream al­tern­at­ive), and are bet­ting that it’s easi­er to de­feat Trump in a one-on-one show­down than Cruz em­boldened by a strong show­ing in Iowa. To di­min­ish Trump at this point, Re­pub­lic­an strategist Alex Cas­tel­lanos wrote in an email Monday, “per­versely helps both Cruz and Trump, which is not what many con­ser­vat­ives in­tend.”

The think­ing goes as fol­lows: If Cruz loses Iowa, he peters out in New Hamp­shire and doesn’t pose a risk of fin­ish­ing in a re­spect­able second place. That al­lows the es­tab­lish­ment win­ner out of the Gran­ite State to build mo­mentum as the anti-Trump al­tern­at­ive. A de­cent num­ber of Cruz’s sup­port­ers, when asked to choose a second can­did­ate, grav­it­ate to Ru­bio. Polls show many more of Trump sup­port­ers, by con­trast, would sup­port Cruz. And even with Trump’s im­prov­ing fa­vor­ab­il­ity num­bers with­in the GOP, there are more Re­pub­lic­an voters who wouldn’t vote for him un­der any cir­cum­stances than say the same about the sen­at­or from Texas.   

These strategists are look­ing at Trump’s in­creas­ingly bel­li­cose at­tacks against Cruz with glee. In their view, only Trump can suc­cess­fully put a dent in Cruz’s sky-high fa­vor­ab­il­ity among Re­pub­lic­ans, which is a pre­con­di­tion to block­ing him from the nom­in­a­tion.

But there’s one big prob­lem with the the­ory be­ing em­braced by many party pooh-bahs. It risks hand­ing the elec­tion to Trump on a sil­ver plat­ter—help­ing knock out his strongest rival while watch­ing help­lessly as more-mod­er­ate al­tern­at­ives blow each oth­er up in the pro­cess. The wish­ful think­ing be­hind such a strategy is that Cruz is ut­terly un­elect­able, while Trump is un­pre­dict­able enough to win a gen­er­al elec­tion. In real­ity, Cruz looks like an elect­able stand­ard-bear­er, while Trump could blow the party to smithereens.

Cruz, des­pite be­ing loathed by his col­leagues in Wash­ing­ton, is a bet­ter gen­er­al-elec­tion can­did­ate than his de­tract­ors be­lieve. His gen­er­al elec­tion fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings are cur­rently re­spect­able, and he runs com­pet­it­ively with Clin­ton in early match­ups. His pro­fes­sion­al re­sume and aca­dem­ic cre­den­tials are ex­cep­tion­al. The polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment for Demo­crats is dis­mal, and is as ill-suited for an es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure like Hil­lary Clin­ton as it is for a hard­line con­ser­vat­ive. Des­pite their dif­fer­ences, Cruz’s vot­ing re­cord in the Sen­ate is not dis­sim­il­ar from Ru­bio’s. Both have near-equal vote rat­ings from the Cham­ber of Com­merce, Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on, and Club for Growth. And if Cruz is as phony as his crit­ics ar­gue—former Mc­Cain ad­viser Mark Salt­er wrote, “I don’t think any sen­at­or really be­lieves Ted Cruz is a con­vic­tion politi­cian, save for his con­vic­tion that he ought to be pres­id­ent”—he would likely inch to the middle in a gen­er­al elec­tion.  

Trump, on the oth­er hand, is a well-defined celebrity with the worst fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings of any­one run­ning. He loses to both Clin­ton and Sanders in gen­er­al-elec­tion match­ups. His nom­in­a­tion would do more to spur His­pan­ic voters to the polls than any Demo­crat­ic get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tion. Any gains he’d make among work­ing-class white voters would be more than off­set by the swing-state sub­urb­an voters that he’s already ali­en­ated. Some op­por­tun­ist­ic Re­pub­lic­an sup­port­ers would jump on a Trump band­wag­on, but he’d tear the party from its con­ser­vat­ive moor­ings, as Na­tion­al Re­view ar­gued in a spe­cial is­sue last week.

It’s a clear sign of how emo­tion is cloud­ing stra­tegic think­ing when The New York Times re­ports that many Cruz crit­ics be­lieve it would be “prefer­able to rent the party to Trump for four months … than risk turn­ing it over to Cruz for at least four years.” Some Re­pub­lic­ans ad­mit they’d rather lose to Hil­lary Clin­ton than win with Cruz. That’s a re­mark­able state­ment.

The al­tern­ate view of the primary is one I laid out in the Hot­line this month, ar­guing that Trump is a mo­mentum can­did­ate—and his suc­cess de­pends on the per­cep­tion of strength. Throughout the cam­paign, his strong poll num­bers have un­der­girded the end­less me­dia cov­er­age he’s re­ceived and sucked at­ten­tion from his rivals. They’ve been the hook at his cam­paign ral­lies. So if he’s de­feated by Cruz in Iowa—even after lead­ing in the latest round of polls—he sud­denly looks like a loser. That doesn’t mean his sup­port dis­ap­pears, but it would al­low the oth­er can­did­ates to re­ori­ent the race in their fa­vor. Most im­port­antly, it pre­vents an early Trump two-fer in Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Trump him­self clearly views the race the same way, camp­ing out in Iowa in the fi­nal stretch of the cam­paign in­stead of stra­tegic­ally lower­ing ex­pect­a­tions in his weak­est state.

If Trump loses Iowa, Cruz would be the clear short-term win­ner. He’d hope to par­lay his suc­cess in­to a second-place fin­ish in New Hamp­shire and a com­mand­ing show­ing in the South­ern primar­ies. But a Cruz vic­tory in Iowa hardly locks up the nom­in­a­tion. His so­cial con­ser­vat­ism is still a mis­match in New Hamp­shire, where his suc­cess is de­pend­ent on a con­tin­ued split between all the es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates, and in later Mid­west­ern and north­east­ern primar­ies. And for Ru­bio, it’s not clear that a weak second-place fin­ish (to Trump) is any bet­ter than a muddled third-place fin­ish be­hind Cruz. If Ru­bio hopes to be the main­stream al­tern­at­ive, he’ll have to prove his vi­ab­il­ity on his own—and not de­pend on Cruz self-de­struct­ing in Iowa.

Pro­ject­ing the tra­ject­ory of the GOP nom­in­a­tion is an art, not sci­ence. For a party that un­der­es­tim­ated Trump’s ap­peal from the be­gin­ning, it’s hard to see how GOP lead­ers can be so self-as­sured of a bank-shot strategy that re­lies on oth­er can­did­ates’ fail­ures, not their pre­ferred can­did­ates’ suc­cesses.

One thing is clear: Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers de­test Cruz so much that they’re will­ing to run the risk an un­elect­able Re­pub­lic­an will glide to the nom­in­a­tion. In­stead of com­ing up with a con­cer­ted strategy to deal with Trump from the be­gin­ning, they’re now play­ing with fire with some last-ditch im­pro­vising—the con­sequences of which could burn the party down.

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