With Trump bruised after Wisconsin, Republicans are beginning to realize that Cruz is their last chance.
The young Ted Cruz was exactly the kind of dynamic attorney that, on paper, any influential law firm would have hired. He was a Princeton graduate, editor of the Harvard Law Review, and a clerk for William Rehnquist, the then-chief justice.
So Cruz’s application at Gibson Dunn’s appellate division in Washington, a firm eager to hire clerks from any of the court’s conservative justices, should have been a slam dunk.
But Cruz never got an offer. Why? Several of his former classmates who had applied at the prestigious firm made clear it was either them or him, according to two sources with knowledge of the decision. “No one wanted to work with him,” said one attorney, who was part of the deliberations and requested anonymity to speak about the private hiring process. “It was a big red flag, and shows that his personality problems were long before the Senate.”
Now, Cruz’s gift for turning people against him may be the greatest obstacle to his current job application. With Donald Trump’s presidential campaign bruised after a brutal loss in Wisconsin, anti-Trump Republicans are beginning to realize that their last chance for a white knight may be Cruz, who, for many, is the original nightmare candidate.
These strategists believe that, while the party may lose the presidency and the Senate with Cruz as the nominee, they’ll be in a better position to hold on to the House, re-elect their incumbent governors and protect their state legislative majorities. By this logic, he is a way to avoid the existential threat to the party posed by Trump’s outsider campaign.
“There is a positive way to look at losing the White House this year,” Sam Geduldig, a Washington lobbyist and Republican fundraiser, said when asked about polls showing Cruz losing to Clinton. “In 2008, we were dead-to-rights, but made up ground in 2010 and now we have the largest House majority since Herbert Hoover. We can make up a lot of ground running against Hillary Clinton in 2018.”
Cruz the Closer
Still, Cruz’s road ahead is a steep one. He trails Trump in the delegate count, and faces long odds in the April 19 contest in New York. Cruz planned to head west on Monday to campaign in delegate-rich California, which holds its primary June 7.
Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan said in an interview that if Cruz finishes third in the Empire State’s primary next week, it may blunt any momentum he picked up in Wisconsin.
And if somehow Cruz was able to win the nomination—his best shot at this point is probably winning a floor fight at the Republican National Convention in July—it’s difficult for many Republican strategists to see what states Cruz would win that Mitt Romney, the party’s last nominee, lost in 2012.
The Texas senator has alienated potential allies at practically every stop along his career, and, as a first-term senator, attached himself to a litany of far-right positions—favoring a consumption tax, supporting mass deportation, opposing abortions for rape or incest victims—that Democrats have used to motivate their own base and turn off independent voters.
But it’s easier for many to imagine him keeping them close enough, by motivating the base, so that winnable House races stay in the GOP column.
In the mid-term elections two years ago, much like President Barack Obama, Cruz was shoved to the sidelines in Senate races in traditionally purple states, where moderate or independent voters could make the difference in their election. Instead, he was in high demand with Senate candidates in Georgia and Kansas, deeply red states where Republicans needed a strong turnout from their base to fend off challengers.
Though Cruz has made enemies in the Senate, he’s been assiduous in tending the grass roots. Two years ago, he was crucial to raising money and rallying the party’s core voters on the fringes of the battlefield. And he’s doing much of that again. No other presidential candidate this cycle has matched Cruz’s ability to perform on all levels of fundraising: small $25 gifts over the Internet, bundled checks of $2,700, and six- and seven-figure donations to his allied super-PACs.
There’s even some belief that Cruz’s public image has a degree of malleability that could be in a transition to the general election. David Wasserman, an analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said Cruz would be a safer choice for Republicans on the ballot.
“While Cruz is still a relatively undefined commodity to a lot of casual voters, Trump is so polarizing that he has the potential to awaken large numbers of young and non-white voters to the polls and significantly hurt Republicans down-ballot,” he said.
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who is working with Our Principles PAC, an anti-Trump group, acknowledged the problems Cruz would bring into the general election. “Certainly not as many as Trump,” he said.
He said the party’s national convention in July could give Cruz a bounce in the polls, unlike Trump.
“What happens with Trump is that the feelings about him are so ingrained before this thing even gets started,” Goeas said. “People forget we came out of the 2008 convention leading the polls for the first time, because we were able frame the candidacy of John McCain in a way many voters hadn’t seen. With Trump you’re not going to be able to do that. With Cruz, you have a shot.”
Still, these views on Cruz are hardly universal and mostly based on the finger-tip feel of political veterans, the kind of wisdom that has proven wrong time and again in this tumultuous political season.
“You could go down with either one, and go down badly with either one,” Buchanan, a former presidential candidate, said in an interview. “For Trump, the question is whether he can make the souffle rise a second time. And that’s a real question. But with Cruz, once you start moving across the Mason-Dixon line, he’s almost Goldwater-like.”
The argument Cruz is that he has become part of the fabric of the far right wing of the party, making it impossible for him to appeal to any voters in the middle. His candidacy, as Buchanan points out, could parallel the 1964 race in which Republican Barry Goldwater lost 44 states to Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Trump, meanwhile, is hardly an ideologue. Many envision him saying whatever he needs to in the moment.
“Ted Cruz has two accomplishments in the Senate: the government shutdown and getting 98 of 100 senators to dislike him to varying degrees,” said U.S. Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican backing John Kasich’s presidential bid. “I find it hard to believe that so many people in the party are casting aside Trump because they suddenly like Cruz. Ted Cruz has so much baggage of his own.”
‘Still an Open Race’
Cruz and his team understand the problem, and are in triage mode. Heidi Cruz, the senator’s wife, was a constant fixture on the campaign trail in Wisconsin and has three events in New York on Monday, a tried-and-true campaign tactic to soften a candidate’s image. Cruz made a blatant pivot to the political center on Tuesday, when he quoted two of the most celebrated leaders in the United States and England: former Democratic President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the corridors of the U.S. Capitol, Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee—the only two senators to formally endorse Cruz—are cornering colleagues seeking support from potential surrogates to defend Cruz now, and in November.
The efforts have had mixed success. Senator Jeff Flake—an Arizona Republican who has described Trump’s policy positions as “crazy” and tried to stop a local Republican Party from sponsoring a Trump event last year—was among those Lee approached about backing Cruz. So far, Flake is a no. “It’s still an open race,” Flake said in a brief interview on Thursday.
Cruz emerged from Wisconsin’s primary last week with an impressive victory, finally winning in a state with few evangelical voters, who are the core of his base. And he scored big with voters who previously favored Trump, splitting support among Republicans without a college degree, and winning almost half of those who want a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants.
But as the race moves to New York, there are few signs that Cruz is capitalizing. He’s 30 percentage points behind Trump in the Empire State’s primary on April 19, according to a Real Clear Politics average of recent polls. Cruz is trailing by double digits in Pennsylvania, which holds its nominating contest a week later.
In Cruz’s own state, fellow Senator John Cornyn has refused to endorse him, and the two haven’t talked since Texas’s primary on March 1. Jesse Benton, the former campaign manger for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is running a pro-Trump super-PAC.
Even Lee, before he endorsed Cruz, warned that the senator’s “great strength”—his strong grassroots appeal—limited his ability to address his big weakness.
“A potential challenge that he’s got,” Lee said in April of last year, will be “demonstrating he can appeal to others within the party, and also that he can have enough appeal outside the party to get him a shot at winning in general election.”
On CNN on Wednesday, Senator Jim Risch seemed to encapsulate the reluctant support for Cruz. The Idaho senator, who originally backed a different colleague in the party’s presidential race, told Wolf Blitzer about how Cruz was the only viable choice left for the party. When the news anchor pointed out that he’d be just the third senator to endorse Cruz, Risch pushed back.
“Did I just endorse, Wolf?” he said.
“You sort of said you prefer him over the two,” Blitzer responded. “That sounds like an endorsement, doesn’t it?”
“I guess,” Risch replied. “It depends on your definition.”