The Republican establishment is becoming more desperate as Donald Trump continues to rack up victory after victory in the GOP primaries. Neither of their remaining candidates – Marco Rubio and John Kasich – has any path forward to win the nomination. So the GOPe is slowly, and with no enthusiasm, moving to back Ted Cruz in a last-ditch effort to head Trump off before the convention this summer.
“He seems to be the only guy who’s got some momentum, and is probably the best situated if there is anybody out there to beat Trump,” said Austin Barbour, a prominent Mississippi-based GOP operative. “That’s why there are many people like me—Ted Cruz wouldn’t have been our first choice, but as we go through the process, we’re reevaluating our vote, and he seems to be the guy at the top of the list.”
“Most people now think Ted’s the best vehicle to defeat Trump,” said Charles C. Foster, a Bush family loyalist from Houston who served on Jeb Bush’s national finance team. “I would say some are enthusiastic for Ted, some are just saying, ‘OK, Ted’s not my first choice, but anyone that can beat Trump, I’ll support.’”
“That’s a big motivating factor,” he continued. “I think Ted is the only possibility to stop Trump.”
Foster spent part of Monday afternoon writing a letter to other Bush alums and former donors, urging them to come on board with Cruz in order to stop Trump.
That Barbour or Foster, who have sharply differed with Cruz on substance and style, would even consider throwing in with the Texas senator speaks to how far the more centrist wing of the party is willing to bend in search of someone to beat Trump. Foster is a prominent advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, a stance which puts him completely at odds with Cruz’s recent suggestion of support for mass deportation.
And Barbour spent much of 2014 helping Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran fend off a nasty primary challenge from insurgent state Sen. Chris McDaniel—who is now Cruz’s Mississippi co-chair. Barbour backed Jeb Bush until he dropped out, and before that he supported Rick Perry, another former rival whom Cruz can now count among his supporters.
They’re not alone: Foster was on a list of eight Bush backers who transferred their support to Cruz that the campaign touted last week. Foster is trying to expand that list, bringing on board people like Chase Untermeyer, a former ambassador and Jeb Bush supporter who worked in both the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations.
The fall of Marco Rubio has hugely complicated the race for the establishment. When Bush and Christie dropped out, it was thought that Rubio would benefit from the winnowed field. But voters didn’t see it that way.
“Ideologically, I’m more interested in Marco, but increasingly, I’m beginning to think about him the way so many people felt about Jeb: Good guy but he’s not winning,” said one former Bush donor.
So Rubio, who was completely shut out of delegates in the four states that voted on Tuesday, has fallen hopelessly behind, with no chance of overtaking Cruz, much less Trump. But most of the establishment appear to be sticking with him at least through Florida’s primary next Tuesday:
Certainly, many establishment figures reject the choice between Trump and Cruz, holding out hope for Rubio or Kasich to make a comeback. Loyalists from both camps aren’t abandoning ship ahead of March 15, when the lawmakers will compete in their respective home states of Florida and Ohio.
Meantime, other influential Republicans intend to remain on the sidelines, with no appetite for backing either Cruz or Trump. As long as Rubio and Kasich are in the race, they say, there will be the possibility that the primary will go all the way to a contested convention.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for anyone to drop out,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and political aide in the George W. Bush White House. “If part of your long-term strategic calculation is to force a contested convention, why would you ever drop out?”
Still, even as they keep pushing for candidates they find more palatable, some leading donors and establishment figures are steeling themselves for a future Cruz push.
While Cruz is very unpopular in the Senate, his colleagues are all career politicians who know how to make the best of bad choices. The same holds true for most of the establishment. Most of them will eventually come out for Cruz because the Trump alternative is unacceptable. Whether Cruz can catch fire and reel off a string of victories in winner-take-all states or some way can be found to deny Trump the nomination at the convention, the war against Donald Trump is about to become even more intense. And Cruz should be the beneficiary.