Last November, I spent a week in Kentucky to cover one of the most-loathed Republicans on the ballot that year. Matt Bevin, an ambitious, tea-party-oriented businessman who had challenged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a 2014 Senate primary, was now the GOP’s gubernatorial standard-bearer in the biggest race in the country. McConnell’s advisers tried to prevent Bevin from winning a divided primary. After he secured the nomination, Republican insiders openly dismissed his chances of winning the general election; they were exasperated that he never listened to the party establishment for advice. Democrats believed the preelection polls showing their nominee, experienced state Attorney General Jack Conway, with a comfortable lead.
Defying conventional wisdom, Bevin won in a landslide. Despite having weak approval ratings, he prevailed because his Democratic opponent’s numbers were even worse. And he has achieved some early conservative governing successes in a state where Democrats had dominated.
Ted Cruz is Matt Bevin, on a national level.
He’s an opportunistic politician who attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, and worked on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign—until realizing his greatest political opportunity came in running against the establishment. He is ambitious to the point of alienating even friends and colleagues. He’s an outsider in a political environment in which being disliked in Washington is a political asset. And if he emerges as the GOP nominee, he’d have the good fortune to be running against Hillary Clinton, a Democratic insider with historically weak favorability numbers.
Democrats and Republicans alike dismiss his chances in a general election at their own risk.
The main reason Cruz will be competitive for the presidency is the fundamental reality of the 2016 election. With the backdrop of a disaffected electorate and a deeply polarizing president leaving office after two terms, any Republican nominee benefits from being the candidate of change. Democrats are also dealing with their own deepening intra-party divide—one that, if it weren’t for the headline-grabbing rise of Donald Trump, would be the defining theme of the 2016 elections.
Clinton is entering the general election with glaring vulnerabilities of her own. Her image is toxic to Republicans and independents, and her popularity among Democrats is now at an all-time low as a presidential candidate, according to Gallup’s polling. It won’t take a top-tier Republican candidate to win.
Republicans dislike Cruz so much that they overlook the fact that he’s read the political mood of his party better than most of his GOP colleagues. Democrats disagree with him so intensely on immigration and abortion that they’re blinded to the fact that their party is becoming equally out of touch with the average voter on national security and law-and-order issues.
Cruz brings some unheralded assets to the race, even as a weaker-than-usual Republican nominee.
First, he has a lot more opportunity to reorient his campaign message for a general election than Clinton has in refurbishing her run-down image. Cruz critics assume his mediocre favorability numbers will get even worse in a general election, but his public standing is bound to improve if Republicans rally around him as the nominee. And if Cruz is so power-hungry, as his critics claim, it’s easy to imagine him making the necessary compromises to win a presidential election. He’s never going to be likable, but he has opportunities to soften his rough edges.
If elected, he’d be the first Hispanic president of the United States—a biographical note that will come up more as the convention nears. The party boasts a deep bench of diverse officeholders for him to pick a running mate. His youth and made-for-TV family (that CNN featured at a town hall this week) contrast favorably to the stale seniority of the Clintons.
And with the GOP race now likely to be decided at a contested convention, expect Cruz to start pivoting to a message aimed at the general election. His recent refusal to commit backing “personhood” legislation that he previously championed is one telltale sign he’s already moderating his tone on polarizing social issues. All told, Cruz’s general-election message is unlikely to deviate much from that of recent Republican nominees.
Second, the polling points to a competitive general election between Clinton and Cruz. National polls show the race within 3 points (according to the RealClearPolitics average), with reputable state polls showing Cruz tied with her in blue-state Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Cruz consistently runs far more competitively against Clinton than Trump does. Her numbers have been consistently weak despite a fairly civil primary campaign in which Bernie Sanders has mostly stuck to issues, and avoided raising questions about her personal integrity.
Third, Cruz is the most likely Republican to hold together a fraying coalition at the Cleveland convention. He’s locked down the traditional conservative base, he has half-hearted backing from the establishment (thanks to Trump), and, not long ago, he was considered the clear second-choice candidate for Trump backers. Trump would divide the party, and nominating a “white knight” candidate would risk alienating the clear majority of GOP voters who have backed outsider, antiestablishment candidates this year.
That’s the key to the general election: Will the Republican Party split in two, or will a nominee be able to maintain the unstable coalition that has led the party to historic highs in House, Senate, and state legislative seats after sweeping victories in the 2010 and 2014 midterms? As one senior GOP operative told National Journal: “We’d win in a landslide as long as Trump and Cruz aren’t our nominees.”
But the notion that Cruz is an unelectable, Goldwater-like candidate isn’t backed up by any empirical evidence—just gut feelings. He’s no more ideologically polarizing than Ronald Reagan was in 1980 and President Obama was in 2012. And as Matt Bevin demonstrated in Kentucky, even flawed candidates who needlessly alienate colleagues can win in the right environment against the right type of opponent.