Cleveland — Ted Cruz walked onto the stage here Wednesday night to a standing ovation, but left to deafening boos.
It was the strangest, most surreal sequence of a Republican convention that has been defined by disorderly proceedings and dreamlike speeches from an odd collection of established politicians, conservative activists, and quasi-celebrities.
The Texas senator, who finished as the runner-up to Donald Trump after a prolonged, bruising primary contest, received a hero’s welcome here inside Quicken Loans Arena when he was introduced just after 9:30 p.m. The packed house delivered a lengthy, raucous salute to Cruz. He waved and nodded his head, basking in the moment.
“I congratulate Donald Trump on winning the nomination last night,” he said mere moments into his remarks, earning booming applause from an audience that seemed to anticipate a forthcoming endorsement of the presumptive nominee. (After all, it was inside this very arena last August where every Republican candidate on the main debate stage – Cruz included — agreed that they would support the eventual nominee.)
Instead, it was the only time Cruz mentioned Trump’s name.
Cruz’s address, which emphasized the theme of “freedom,” was sharp, steady, and well-received until its closing minutes. “We deserve leaders who stand for principle, unite us all behind shared values, cast aside anger for love. That is the standard we should expect from everybody,” Cruz said.
As the arena began to buzz, Cruz delivered two fateful lines.
First: “And to those listening, please, don’t stay home in November.” The audience erupted with applause, clearly expecting an endorsement of Trump.
Instead, Cruz then added: “Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.” Sections of the crowd began to boo loudly: “Vote your conscience” was the rallying cry of the anti-Trump mutiny that tried and failed to re-write the GOP’s rules and oust him as the party’s nominee. Cruz’s words, intentionally or not, seemed to salute those rebels — and Trump’s supporters inside the convention hall weren’t having it.
As delegates voiced their disapproval of Cruz, the booing was led by the enormous New York delegation, which sits front-and-center in the arena due to Trump’s native-son status. Visibly shaken by the protests, Cruz tried to put out the fire. “I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation,” he said, forcing a smile.
But things only got worse. Cruz had just four short paragraphs left in his speech — words that paid homage to his mother and father, and to a slain Dallas police officer. But they were difficult to hear. Chaos had broken out on the convention floor: The booing grew louder and nastier, and in response, pockets of Cruz loyalists began shouting back at the antagonists.
“You arrogant ass!” yelled Donald Hoffman, the former president of the American Nuclear Society, who was standing on the floor for Cruz’s remarks.
Cruz continued on, his voice shaky, as the noise from delegates on the floor — and attendees in the second and third decks of the arena — all but drowned him out.
The scene, watched by millions of people around the world, was an unmitigated nightmare for Cruz, who in many ways was using Wednesday’s speech as the unofficial kickoff of his 2020 campaign. Cruz knew that he was taking a risk by not endorsing Trump — yet never could have predicted the scope of vitriol his decision would elicit.
When he had uttered his final words — “Thank you, and may God bless the United States of America” — Cruz was showered with thunderous, cascading boos. He stepped away from the podium yet remained on the stage for several moments, waving and smiling uncomfortably, trying not to appear paralyzed by the moment.
Cruz’s top officials, including campaign manager Jeff Roe and chief strategist Jason Johnson, traveled here to put finishing touches on the speech and meet with Cruz loyalists. They watched together from backstage and insisted afterward that they were unfazed by the backlash. “I have never been more proud to work for Ted Cruz,” one lieutenant said in a text message.
Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who advised Cruz’s campaign, said he didn’t think Cruz’s remarks were problematic. “I thought Ted, you know, spoke his own mind there, and I can’t quibble with that,” he said. “That’s what he’s done for years, it makes him unique among political figures.”
The episode is certain to harden perceptions on both sides of Cruz, who since his election to the Senate in 2012 has become the most polarizing Republican in Washington. Cruz’s critics will point to yet another example of self-promotion at the expense of party unity; his fans will see another instance of a steel-spined conservative standing on principle and defying the wishes of the Republican establishment.
Either way, it’s difficult to conclude that the optics — getting booed off stage during prime time of a party convention — are helpful to a politician positioning himself for another presidential run.
And though Cruz supporters were vocally and defiantly supportive in the incident’s aftermath, his senior team huddled immediately afterward to discuss the fallout and continued meeting into the early hours of Thursday morning. (One Cruz aide disputed this characterization, saying the team meets each night at their hotel anyway.)
Cruz’s allies spoke incessantly in recent weeks of Ronald Reagan’s defeat in 1976 convention after a hard-fought primary against Gerald Ford, and how it positioned Reagan to capture the GOP nomination four years later. And while Reagan did not explicitly endorse Ford in his address to the 1976 convention, he praised the sitting president on a personal level and said, “We must go forth from here united.” The remarks were met with an overwhelmingly positive response — there were no boos — and helped Reagan begin to consolidate the support necessary to win the nomination in 1980.
In reality, Wednesday’s speech was never the one Cruz envisioned, especially after he won the Iowa caucuses on February 1 and grew convinced that he was in the driver’s seat to claim the GOP nomination.
That night, standing inside a pole barn at the Iowa state fairgrounds, Cruz previewed his acceptance speech: ”If the other states across the country follow the lead of the good men and women of Iowa, and support this campaign, then, I tell you this. This July, in Cleveland, you will hear these words spoken from the podium of the unified Republican convention: ‘Tonight, I want to say to every member of the Democratic party, who believes in limited government, in personal opportunity and the United States Constitution, and a safe and secure America, come home.’”
Six and a half months later, Cruz had the opportunity to heal divisions in the party and help create a ”unified Republican convention” on behalf of Trump. He declined. It’s a decision that Trump’s opponents — and his supporters — won’t soon forget.
– Alexis Levinson contributed to this report.