On April 5, conservatives around the nation, beleaguered and bleary-eyed after months of Donald Trump’s rampaging through the 2016 presidential primary season, received some comforting news: Wisconsin Republicans had dealt Trump a decisive defeat in the state’s primary that day, awarding most of their delegates to his leading competitor, Texas senator Ted Cruz.
If not for Cruz, Trump would inevitably be the nominee. Yet he’s a weak front-runner, having lost about a dozen contests to Cruz prior to the Wisconsin primary. (Although John Kasich remains in the race, he has, as yet, won exactly one contest, in his home state of Ohio, and racked up fewer delegates than Marco Rubio, who dropped out several weeks ago.) The GOP is finally, at long last, taking its Trump problem seriously, and its ability to thwart his bid for the nomination is wholly contingent on Cruz’s ongoing success.
Yet Cruz continues to be vastly underrated, as a competitor and as a potential president. His academic and professional credentials are well established: While an undergraduate at Princeton, he cleaned up on the college debate circuit; at Harvard Law School, he did well enough to win clerkships with J. Michael Luttig of the Fourth Circuit and William H. Rehnquist, then chief justice of the Supreme Court. Later, after an apparently contentious stint on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and a few subdued years at the Federal Trade Commission, he was hired by Greg Abbott, then Texas’s new attorney general, to serve as the state’s solicitor general, in which capacity he distinguished himself as an inimitable appellate lawyer, thanks to his work on cases such as Medellin v. Texas, Van Orden v. Perry, and District of Columbia v. Heller. Conservatives couldn’t ask for a president better equipped to nominate judges.
Throughout this unusually chaotic primary season, and despite the unforgiving assessments of his rivals and his many critics, Cruz has maintained a steady course and an apparently unflappable demeanor, showing an equanimity and focus that are at odds with his widespread reputation as a “wacko bird,” as John McCain famously described him shortly after his arrival in the Senate. This collective error in perception and judgment on the part of the GOP establishment has seriously jeopardized the party’s ability to avert the institutional catastrophe that Trump’s nomination would represent, and hampered Cruz’s ability to save the party from itself.
To be fair, no one, not even Cruz, expected that Trump’s idle rumblings last spring about running for president would lead to his actually throwing his hat in the ring (or that he would do so well if he did run). And no one would have seen Cruz as a favorite, either. He was the first candidate to announce his bid for the 2016 presidential nomination, in March of last year, but at that time it was already known that the Republican field would be very crowded and more talented than usual. Cruz’s eventual competitors included a number of highly regarded and intriguing candidates — some with extensive experience, such as Rick Perry and Scott Walker; some with the universal respect of the party elders, such as Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham; and others, such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, seeming to represent a more inclusive future for the party.
And then there was Cruz. His political experience is skimpy. He had never run for office before winning the Republican nomination for a Senate seat in 2012, and since Texas leans heavily Republican and his Democratic opponent that year was exceptionally weak, his general-election campaigning skills were barely tested. His legislative record is underwhelming. Since joining the Senate in 2013, his main accomplishments, according to many observers, have been engineering a government shutdown and alienating virtually all of his colleagues. His shelf appeal is minimal — the reedy voice, the beau laid face, the suits that don’t always fit correctly on a body with the approximate proportions of a Beanie Baby.
And Cruz’s initial moves raised rightful suspicions. He announced his campaign at Liberty University, with a speech geared to the religious Right: “Instead of a federal government that works to undermine our values, imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage.” His campaign strategist, Jason Johnson, openly acknowledged that Cruz’s strategy was focused on turning out disaffected white voters, even though such an approach seemed unpropitious: With the GOP hoping to make inroads among non-white voters, Cruz hails from the one state where Republicans have had demonstrable success in doing just that, and although he eschews the label, he would be the first Hispanic to serve as president should he win.
Nothing, however, was as discomfiting as Cruz’s response to Trump. Most of the Republicans running for president were clearly reluctant to engage Trump at first, or to dispute his various attacks. Rick Perry, to his enduring credit, was a notable exception; the longest-serving governor in Texas history pushed back against Trump’s sweeping indictment of illegal immigrants, although any consultant could have told him that there would be no political benefit to doing so. Cruz, meanwhile, took the opposite tack. “I like Donald Trump,” he declared in August. “I think he’s terrific.”
The bromance, which would persist through the fall, was clearly strategically motivated. Despite Cruz’s youth and inexperience, he never considered running to be Trump’s vice president, nor did he have any reason to do so: With a Senate term that expires in the 2018 cycle, and alternative opportunities including a bid to succeed his mentor, Greg Abbott, as governor of Texas, Cruz has demonstrably better career options than bag boy for a buffoon. Still, I, like many others, found Cruz’s embrace of Trump almost unconscionable, and was reluctant to support him until a few salient facts about the 2016 primary became clear.
The first was that Trump could, in fact, become the Republican nominee. His net favorability rating, which had initially seemed low enough to limit his prospects, improved significantly over the course of the year. The second was that the only candidate with a realistic chance of beating Trump was Cruz. The third was that the GOP establishment, which had spent years overlooking the conditions that laid the groundwork for Trump, was going to do its very best to stop Cruz.
The Iowa caucuses were the wake-up call on the third point. In December, polls had shown Cruz leading among the state’s likely voters, but on the eve of the caucuses, he had slid back into second place, thanks to sustained attacks coming from many directions and for many reasons, from accusations of paying an inadequate tithe (“I just think it’s hard to say God is first in your life if he’s last in your budget,” said Mike Huckabee, then still a candidate) to the fact that he was born in Canada. That Cruz nevertheless pulled out a win was a testament to his tactical acumen and his extraordinarily effective ground game, which saw hundreds of volunteers travel to Iowa to make the case to caucus-goers in person.
But Cruz’s rivals and his many critics in the mainstream media immediately set to work discounting his victory. The initial line of criticism was that Cruz’s success in Iowa didn’t mean all that much, really, considering that it was naturally favorable terrain for him — as if urbane constitutional conservatives from Texas normally do well in the rural and heavily Evangelical Midwest, even if they’re the only candidate in living memory, from either party, to go to Iowa and declare their opposition to the ethanol mandate.
The critics got a considerable boost when the hapless Ben Carson accused Cruz’s campaign of “dirty tricks” after learning that Cruz’s staff had forwarded to campaign workers a CNN story, published minutes before the caucuses began, that reported, accurately, that Carson planned to take a short break from the campaign trail after Iowa. The staff had apparently taken the news to mean that Carson’s departure from the race was imminent — a reasonable interpretation but, as it happened, an incorrect one. There was no evidence that Cruz’s alleged treachery had cost Carson any votes, and Cruz later apologized to Carson, several times, for his staff’s error.
Even so, cable-news hosts lingered over the questions about Cruz’s character that Carson had raised. So did Marco Rubio, flush off a third-place finish in the caucuses — a victory over expectations that may also, incidentally, have been facilitated by Cruz’s ground game, which helped fuel a startling increase in turnout for Cruz and the other candidates. (Some 180,000 Iowans voted in this year’s Republican caucuses, up 50 percent from 2012.) The result was that Trump was spared the full effect of the clear-cut defeat he had experienced at the hands of a more skillful opponent. By the end of the week, Trump had apparently convinced himself that he was the “real winner” of the Iowa caucuses, since Cruz should have been disqualified on the basis of his “dirty tricks.”
This pattern would continue for the next two months. Cruz won three states (out of twelve holding contests) on Super Tuesday — including Texas, where he bested Trump by 17 points in a field that was split five ways. But Texas, it was said, didn’t really count: In addition to its being his home state, he was buoyed by the backing of dozens of influential officials and advocates, including the governor, Greg Abbott, and Cruz’s onetime rival Perry. Oklahoma didn’t count either: It is basically North Texas, according to the Beltway surveyors. Alaska was discounted on the basis that it held caucuses rather than a primary.
Abbott, incidentally, offered an astute assessment while making the media rounds after announcing his endorsement of Cruz: The reason that his former protégé had won Iowa, and would win Texas, was that those were the two states where voters had been able to get a clear picture of the candidate, despite cable news’s saturation-level coverage of Trump and the general contempt for Cruz among most Washington-based sources. This could explain Cruz’s pattern of overperforming in caucus states, where votes are cast after a robust participatory process. It would also suggest that Cruz’s prospects of winning the nomination on a second or third ballot at the Republican National Convention are better than they might at first appear: A contested convention is the functional equivalent of a closed caucus, with no ambiguities about how high turnout will be or who will be voting.
Many misconceptions about Cruz’s candidacy have persisted. Cruz was widely denounced in early March, when it was reported that he would open ten offices in Florida, with plans to compete in that state’s primary, on March 15. Florida, according to the critics, was spoken for, even though Rubio — the man supposedly entitled to win it — had, at that point, won only three contests, in Minnesota, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. He was trailing Trump by double digits in Florida polls. But the ardor of his supporters was undimmed, and their fury was righteous. In their telling, Cruz’s potential undermining of Rubio in his home state was only enabling Trump. After Cruz eventually focused on other states holding primaries that day, Trump cruised to a 19-point win in Florida and secured its 99 delegates.
It has been clear for a couple of months that Cruz, for all his faults, is the only Republican candidate who can stop Trump. Trump’s supporters are an amorphous group, but several recurring themes — their disaffection with the status quo, their opposition to the establishment, their antipathy to the mainstream media — mark them out as voters who were bound to be more receptive to the insurrectionist Cruz than to an august establishment figure such as Jeb Bush or a darling of the elite such as Rubio.
And although none of the non-Trump Republicans had planned for the disruption they encountered — an angry, shape-shifting, oxygen-sucking black swan — Cruz was the first one to recalibrate accordingly, and is the only one to have done so with any success. It’s true that, while he initially planned to shore up his support among Evangelicals and run up his delegate totals in the southern states, in the end he failed to win a single state in the Bible Belt. But not even Cruz could have expected self-identified Evangelicals to rally around Trump, who talks about worship the way observant Christians talk about a trip to the beach: a pleasant way to while away some time on a Sunday. And Cruz’s initial strategy sessions surely did not envision building a firewall in the West, which Cruz is now striving to complete. He’s not a mind reader, after all. Nor is he a saint. But he is as shrewd and effective a competitor as the Republicans could have hoped for in their time of Trump troubles — and a better candidate, in the end, than the party’s establishment deserves.
– Erica Grieder is a senior editor of Texas Monthly.