Going into the 2016 Republican primary, former Florida governor Jeb Bush was the favorite on many handicap cards.
True, the Bush name could be a liability, but probably less so against an equally dynastic opponent like Hillary Clinton. (Or, for Bush critics, running him would foolishly hamper the Republicans’ ability to make hay over the ascension of a hereditary Clinton monarch.) Bush had vast financial resources, a political organization second to none, gubernatorial experience, and all the Establishment support anyone could ask for.
Even after the Trump surge, conventional wisdom still held Bush was the candidate best positioned to ride out the frenzy… which became an enduring phenomenon that baffles observers across the political spectrum to this day. Bush had the endurance to keep his head down, make plans for a few early-state wins, watch his less well-financed candidates drop away, and become the last man standing against Trump… at which point the majority of GOP voters who don’t want Trump as the nominee would coalesce around him.
None of that is actually happening for Bush, despite millions of dollars spent on his doomed political effort… but the Bush strategy does seem to be working for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
As improbable as it seemed a year ago, Cruz is on the verge of becoming the last man standing against Trump. Perhaps the GOP Establishment will soon begin having trouble remembering exactly why they hate Cruz so much.
They do hate him, make no mistake – to a degree average Republican voters might not fully appreciate. Author Mark Steyn was recently on Capitol Hill to attend a crucial hearing on climate change, in the company of highly capable skeptics Judith Curry, John Christy, and Will Happer.
When climate cultist Senator Ed Markey tried to stage an inquisition, Steyn and his merry band turned the hearings against the Democrat senator and actually drove him out of the room. But there was no Republican backup to capitalize on the moment, because while all the Democrats on the Senate Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee showed up for a fight, the only Republican who bothered with the hearing was the subcommittee chair: Ted Cruz.
The “not-so-subtle” reason for the absence of other Republicans, Steyn ventured, “is that, like Bob Dole (currently threatening, if Cruz is the nominee, to ‘oversleep’ on Election Day), their antipathy to Ted Cruz outweighs everything else. Dole feels that Cruz has been given the greatest honor any man can have – the keys to the Senate men’s room – and yet he won’t play by the rules of the club.”
The more subtle reason deduced by Steyn for Republicans taking a powder on a hearing that could have been politically helpful is that they’re planning to fold on the climate change issue, just like they fold on everything else. Which is really just a subset of the first reason he gave, because Ted Cruz is one of the few Republicans who doesn’t fold easily.
If the Establishment is really willing to sabotage the race and throw 2016 to Clinton out of antipathy for both Cruz and Trump, then the Republican Party will die on their watch, and there’s really nothing that can be done to save it – a very tough break for America.
If they’re really interested in fielding a strong alternative to Trump, motivated to some degree by a sincere conviction that he can’t beat Clinton, they really need to start thinking about making peace with Cruz. One suspects he is ready to make peace with them, albeit driving a hard bargain the process, because he seems to have gamed this whole election out, and blunting the anger of the GOP’s professional loser class is one of the last moves he needs to make.
Cruz also has to get past Marco Rubio. It’s effectively a three-man race now, unless Chris Christie’s long-shot bid to put a governor back on the map by scoring a surprise win in New Hampshire pans out. As Ben Carson deflates, Cruz has been picking up much of his support, surging 10 points in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The WSJ notes that Cruz’s gain among “very conservative voters” exactly matches Carson’s loss of 23 points.
Cruz seems very well-positioned to continue picking up Carson’s support.
Actually, he’s better positioned than any of the remaining candidates to pick up everyone’s support. Headline news items have remarked on Cruz’s enduring refusal to hit Donald Trump, even as Trump goes to work on him at last… but really, for a politician who is supposed to be a renegade firebrand, Cruz has been remarkably successful at keeping a line open to just about every constituency. That’s probably one reason he was relatively quiet during the early debates – he was more interested in introducing himself to the national audience as a broadly acceptable candidate than throwing punches and alienating constituencies.
At this point, Cruz-bashers might have a hard time explaining to Republican voters exactly why the senator from Texas would be such a terrible alternative, especially given what actually happened in the 2014 midterm elections, after Cruz’s stand against ObamaCare supposedly doomed the party. For that matter, it would be a tough sell convincing most Americans that taking a firm stand against ObamaCare, before its expensive collapse began in earnest, was a bad idea.
Marco Rubio is the prime Party pick against Trump… but the truth is, unless he turns things around with the next couple of debates and hard campaigning on the ground, he just doesn’t look as strong as Cruz. Too many grassroots voters are having a hard time getting past Rubio’s Gang of Eight debacle, not just because they value the rule of law and are exceptionally concerned with border security at the moment, but because they’re furious at Republican leaders who roll over for Democrats. It should be obvious at this point that Republican voters are looking for a tough negotiator who can take a strong hand with the opposition party, and make “bipartisanship” something more than a euphemism for “capitulation to Democrats.”
The Hill praised Cruz this week for playing a “long game” and building solid support in important primary states, while media attention was focused on national polls that had not yet switched to the more accurate “likely voter” screen. Cruz is also raising more money than all other candidates, and has spent his money carefully enough to accumulate the most cash on hand.
“Cruz’s investment in ground operations has paid off, as he notably has the strongest infrastructure in Iowa and South Carolina, and is far ahead of the pack in Super Tuesday primary states,” The Hill noted. He’s been winning the support of important community leaders in these states, creating a network of campaign advocates who can do important ground work for him.
Another important, under-reported victory for Cruz was his endorsement by a group of conservative leaders in Virginia at the beginning of September – an assembly designed to hold conservative support together during the turbulence of a hotly-contested primary. The group was deadlocked between Rubio and Cruz during four exhausting rounds of voting, but during the fifth, Cruz prevailed.
“It represents more than a public-relations victory for Cruz,” reported Tim Alberta of National Review:
The senator has long said, both publicly and privately, that his best chance to secure the Republican nomination is to unite the conservative base behind him — and that the best way of doing so is to earn the backing of high-profile activist leaders in hopes that their endorsements trigger a cascade of support down to the grassroots level. That scenario no longer seems far-fetched, especially with Ben Carson fading and the conservative “lane” of the GOP primary now cleared of one-time threats such as Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Perry.
The big problem with 2012’s spectacular, but short-lived, insurgencies is that none of those candidates ever seemed to have a firm strategy for winning a 50-state primary, while Mitt Romney did – and he’d been working on implementing it for years.
Ted Cruz clearly does have a plan, and it’s not something he scribbled down on a cocktail napkin on the day before the primary began. Trump and Rubio clearly see him as a threat, attacking Cruz in their distinctly different ways. Cruz has been pulling significantly ahead of Rubio in the polls; if he consolidates that lead, this crowded primary might suddenly become a two-man race, and voters will never forgive anyone other than Bob Dole for sleeping through it.