UPDATE: Feb. 26 -- In a surprise move, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former presidential candidate, endorsed Donald Trump, the current Republican front-runner -- the clearest evidence yet that the GOP is finding a way to become comfortable with the reality TV star.
Ted Cruz may wind up becoming Donald Trump's greatest weapon.
The Republican establishment has spent the last few months warning that the rise of Trump's presidential candidacy represented a grave threat, not just to the party, but to the country itself. That may still be the case. But in recent weeks, the GOP brass has come face to face with the one man who could make Trump begin to appear appealing: Ted Cruz.
"Cruz has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in D.C., whereas Trump hasn't, and Trump up until this year was pretty much a player," said Craig Shirley, a longtime GOP strategist and charter member of the establishment. "Ultimately, the Washington establishment deep down -- although they find Trump tacky or distasteful -- they think that they ultimately can work with him. Deep down, a lot of people think it is an act."
There is ample reason for Republican insiders to feel more affinity to the real estate mogul than to the brash Texas tea party senator. As Shirley noted, Washington has spent decades doing business with Trump, if not personally begging him for checks.
But, mainly, the reason that Republican leaders are moving toward Trump has nothing to do with him. They viscerally, unashamedly loathe Cruz.
“Nobody likes him.” It's a line Trump has used several times to describe Cruz, but it's also a quote attributed to GOP greybeard Bob Dole that was published Wednesday by The New York Times (of all places). Another former Republican Senate majority leader, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), said the same day that he, too, would take Trump over Cruz. That came a day after Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the longest-serving governor in the nation, broke his longstanding neutrality to encourage caucus-goers to vote against the Texas senator. That, in turn, came a week after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party's 2008 presidential nominee, said there were "issues" over whether Cruz was even eligible for the presidency -- putting McCain philosophically in cahoots with Trump, a man who not too long ago mocked his war service.
Trump, the national front-runner with just weeks before voting begins, still doesn’t have a single endorsement from a sitting member of Congress, and must be one of the first major party candidates to have been dropped by so many corporate partners, all of whom feared his hate speech would rub off on their own brands. But the retired Republican class that no longer has to face primary voters has begun to speak its mind, and Trump has been the beneficiary.
Why the pile-on? For starters, there is a (quite reasonable) assumption that Trump has just been putting on a show the last few months, that he doesn't actually believe the off-the-wall fascism coming out of his mouth, let alone plan to follow through on it. That he's spoken about tracking a more moderate path in the general election only affirms the suspicion that he's a man with whom you can do business.
Ted Cruz, though, means business. He gives the impression of a very bright man who settled on his political worldview as a 19-year-old, and has been playing clever word games in empty debates ever since. He is a grown man, he's losing his hair, but he will still deliver a passionate speech about Mumia Abu Jamal on the Senate floor as if it were his Princeton dorm room. Cruz has lived among Washington for three years, and his penchant for being a pain has earned him few friends, outside of a few senators looking to stir up Congress and a small group of House conservatives looking to do the same.
President Franklin Roosevelt, when taking on the banks during the Great Depression, famously said, "They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred." Cruz is following FDR's lead, but substituting Republicans for bankers (while being married to a Goldman Sachs banker). Cruz has shown a real willingness to put Republicans in difficult positions and then to place the blame at their feet when those positions bloom into abject disasters (remember the October 2013 government shutdown?).Cruz has little interest in making sure practical things, like keeping government agencies funded, are accomplished, at least when there are fundraising lists to be grown. That unwillingness to go along -- and the 'Is it good for the Cruz?' mindset so visible to D.C. insiders -- has earned him both the support of the angry GOP electorate and many an earful at private weekly lunches held by Senate Republicans.
Beyond his weird politics -- he backs returning to the gold standard (!) and flat-out abolishing the IRS -- he is the first presidential candidate in modern history to acknowledge that he is an unpleasant person to be around. And he did so, appropriately, in creepy fashion. "If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy," Cruz said at a debate. "But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done and I will get you home."
That off-putting personality that Cruz so proudly owns makes him, in the eyes of many Republicans, a truly horrifying standard-bearer. “If he’s the nominee, we’re going to have wholesale losses in Congress and state offices and governors and legislatures,” said Dole.
Among some seasoned Republicans, the animus toward Cruz is so strong that a schadenfreudian hope has begun to emerge. In a contest against Trump, the thinking goes, it might be best for Cruz to win the nomination, only to suffer a lopsided general election defeat, proving once and for all the true limits of his appeal. It is taken for granted that the party under Cruz cannot win. And, in Washington, life will go on.
"I'm rooting for Hillary," said one half-joking somebody in the GOP establishment. "She can't win a mandate, so we hold the House and don't get slaughtered in the Senate. We will have a great midterm in 2018 running against her," he said, requesting anonymity for obvious reasons. "We are a great opposition party." [CORRECTION: The somebody in question wanted to clarify that he is not at all joking, not even halfway, and is indeed fully rooting for Hillary Clinton.]
A longtime GOP hand who is active in the 2016 elections added that there is a "feeling that with Trump, it's easier for House and Senate candidates to separate themselves from the top of the ticket versus a fellow senator and particularly one who is running a hard-right campaign with no apparent desire to do outreach to independents and minorities."
Cruz himself, ever the keen political observer, has noticed the tentative coalescing. "An amazing thing is happening in this race," he said on a conservative radio show Wednesday. "What we’re seeing is the Washington establishment, they’re abandoning Marco Rubio because they’ve determined Marco can’t win and they’re rushing full speed to embrace Donald Trump."
Donald Trump: Racist, sexist, fascist -- and the darling of the GOP establishment.
Matt Fuller, Scott Conroy and Igor Bobic contributed reporting.