AGAINST THE GRAIN

Why Cruz Could Beat Clinton

He’s an outsider with a malleable image running against an insider with glaring vulnerabilities.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters on Monday in San Diego.
AP Photo/Sandy Huffaker
April 17, 2016, 6 a.m.

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.

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