How Ted Cruz could hurt the right and help Chris Christie in 2016

If his extremism pushes other Tea Party contenders into the 2016 race, a "moderate" could win the GOP nod again

By Joan Walsh

Published October 29, 2013 3:35PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Chris Christie                     (Reuters/Jim Bourg/Carlo Allegri)
Ted Cruz, Chris Christie (Reuters/Jim Bourg/Carlo Allegri)

I’m on record saying many times that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is too moderate to win the GOP nomination (and he wouldn’t be elected president even if he succeeded.) I’m still confident about that last part, but I’m starting to see Christie’s road to the nomination – and he’s getting a major assist from Sen. Ted Cruz.

Sure, it’s only 2013, and Cruz could be engaged in an elaborate fake-out to make reporters think he’s running for president. All we know for sure is that Cruz wants to look like a 2016 contender, following a trip to Iowa last weekend, to pander to that state’s right-wing caucus base, with one to South Carolina to meet with Christian pastors next week. Wearing a roving microphone and wandering crowds like an infomercial pitchman, Cruz is collecting cellphone numbers and raising money like nobody’s business. He sure looks like he’s running for president, and staking out the social conservative base as early as possible.

And maybe by doing so he’ll scare others out of the race. But for now, it looks like other right-wingers are making moves to run themselves. I wrote yesterday about how Sen. Marco Rubio’s decision to abandon his own immigration reform bill is designed to shore up his right flank for 2016. After joining Cruz’s fauxlibuster and voting to keep government shut down, Rubio is clearly cozying up as close to Cruz as possible.

Meanwhile Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucus last year, decided to edge to the middle a little bit on “Meet the Press” Sunday, declaring that Cruz hurt the party with his shutdown histrionics. Now Santorum isn’t quite a Tea Party guy – he voted for too much government when he was in the Senate – but he’s a social conservative favorite and he did finish second to Mitt Romney in the 2012 delegate count. He’s said to be pondering a 2016 run and rebuking Cruz on “Meet the Press” only furthered that story line.

Then there’s Sen. Rand Paul, who apparently plagiarized Wikipedia for a bizarre Gattaca-themed attack on abortion while campaigning for embattled Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. Since Cuccinelli avoided a photo opportunity with Cruz during the shutdown (which clearly hurt his prospects in the government-dependent state of Virginia), Paul’s campaigning on his behalf helps establish him as the far-right alternative to Cruz, if Cruz’s grandstanding continues to hurt the GOP and doom his chance to win the nomination. Being the darling of social conservatives helps in the GOP primary, but being hated by every other Republican probably hurts Cruz.

There are a few other Tea Party favorites who’ve expressed interest in a 2016 run, including the 2012 disaster Rick Perry, whose decision not to run for reelection as Texas governor fueled speculation that he’s still interested in being president. Even Cruz’s Iowa pheasant-hunting partner, Rep. Steve King, has popped off about his willingness to run, if no other sufficiently right-wing nut-job emerges. But his weekend bonding with Cruz makes it seem that the Texas senator is right-wing enough for King.

The point is, Cruz’s extremism and its impact on his party might go beyond what’s necessary to win over the right-wing GOP primary base and into territory where he seems vulnerable to others on the right. And if Cruz attracts Tea Party rivals into the 2016 race, it could open the door to a moderate like Christie. Just like the circular firing squad on the right in 2012 helped Mitt Romney: As Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Santorum competed for the right-wing base – Perry was never a serious candidate – Romney methodically racked up delegates and won the nomination.

Christie could conceivably do the same thing. He’s all but declared his intention to run even as he runs for reelection next Tuesday, declaring in the Oct. 10 debate “I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can do this job and also deal with my future. And that’s exactly what I will do.” (Interestingly, likely New Jersey voters think Christie ought to run for president, 48-41, including 72 percent of Republicans.)

Of course Christie could have some competition among supposedly “moderate” GOP governors. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich are also getting attention as purple-state governors who haven’t joined the Cruz-led anti-government suicide caucus. Not only did Kasich defy state Republicans and accept Medicaid expansion, he told the New York Times that “there seems to be a war on the poor” in his party. But Kasich and Walker have to run for reelection in 2014; Christie will get that behind him next week, letting him focus on national politics without electoral distraction.

It’s still early. But Tailgunner Ted could be destructive enough to take fire from the right, opening the door to the nomination of another moderate. If he succeeds in making himself the sole Tea Party standard-bearer, he could conceivably beat a Christie or Kasich or Walker – and then he’d lose to a Democrat. (Ruy Teixeira has a look at how Hillary Clinton in particular could even break the GOP’s near-lock on white working-class voters.) White seniors and white working-class millenials are not going to vote for President Ted Cruz.

Clearly what’s good for Cruz is bad for his party, and worse for the country. But his overreaching may even be bad for the right wing he’s pandering to.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2016 Elections Editor's Picks Gov. Chris Christie Sen. Marco Rubio Sen. Rand Paul Sen. Ted Cruz Tea Party