The brewing Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio showdown: Why conservatives are girding for this two-man race

Right-wing media is abuzz that it'll all come down to the two Cuban-American senators. Here's how it could play out

Published November 5, 2015 11:00AM (EST)

  (Jeffrey Malet, Reed/Photo montage by Salon)
(Jeffrey Malet, Reed/Photo montage by Salon)

A consensus has emerged on the right in recent weeks that Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz are now the candidates to beat in the Republican primary. (Trigger warning: two links in that last sentence take you to columns by Jonah Goldberg and Kevin D. Williamson. Proceed at your own peril.) To which I say, sure, why not. This Republican primary engenders the same feeling as an ugly, low-scoring baseball game heading into the 25th inning. Sooner or later, somebody has to win.

Cruz and Rubio have a long way to go before their national poll numbers approach those of the current front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. But they are trending upward nationally, especially after both turned in decent performances at the last debate. Rubio’s defenestration of Jeb! Bush’s tired talking point about missed Senate votes seemed to reduce his onetime mentor to a quivering heap of Jell-O. Bush still hasn’t recovered. Meanwhile, Cruz’s attack on the CNBC moderators for what he perceived as terrible debate questions earned him cheers across the right wing. Give the senator from Texas credit. He knows how to tickle the Republican base’s G-spot.

So what has to happen to bring about the glorious sight of this penny-ante chiseler from Florida wrestling with the smirking oil derrick from Texas for the right to lead a party of xenophobes, nativists and people who don’t understand math on the 2016 electoral battlefield?

Despite their recent upticks, both senators are still drifting along in Carson and Trump’s wake. Both would have to grab a significant chunk of the front-runners’ support. A couple of those demographics might be up for grabs. Carson has a sizable number of evangelical voters right now, and Cruz believes he could bring them over to his camp. I’ve always thought his strategy in general – bringing back the coalition with so-called Reagan Democrats that put the Great Communicator in the White House – was ridiculous, if only for the fact that voter demographics are a wee bit different from what they were in 1980. But who knows, maybe God told Cruz this was a good strategy.

There is also this about Cruz: Despite support in the polls, everyone who gets to know him seems to loathe him. And I mean, loaaaaaathe him. His Senate colleagues would probably like to lock him in a broom closet for the rest of his term. Even having won election in Texas, he’s still going to have to reverse that trend to bring voters into his camp.

As for Rubio, he likely benefits from this scenario outlined at FiveThirtyEight. Essentially, the idea is that the structure of the GOP primary has blue states, with their higher delegate counts, voting earlier. This gives blue-state Republicans, who tend to be more moderate, a larger say in selecting a candidate than current polls might reflect. So the more moderate (or in Rubio’s case, moderate-seeming) candidate is likely to ride that support to the nomination. Under this scenario, he doesn’t need to be doing great in the polls. He just needs to be within striking distance of the current front-runners.

Another benefit for Rubio is the seeming desire of some in the media to find something impressive about him and declare him the most electable Republican candidate. This will bleed over into the Republican establishment, which after all reads the same East Coast media organs that tend to reflect that inside-the-Beltway thinking where both parties are basically the same. If Rubio can continue getting good coverage and keep the Chuck Todds of the world from noticing that his policies are as revanchist and backward as anything Matt Bevin is about to try to institute in Kentucky, he’ll be in good position to grab the nomination.

What would really help Cruz and Rubio grab some of the front-runners’ support is Trump or Carson dropping out of the race altogether. How likely is that to happen?

Barring a sudden and epic collapse in the polls, Trump isn’t going away for quite some time.  Yes, his national poll numbers are on a distinctly downward trend. But he’s still up by a substantial margin in New Hampshire and right there with Carson in Iowa. And quite simply, he seems to be having too much fun. The attention, the “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig, the opportunity to needle all his competitors in the national press on an hourly basis...Donald Trump was born for a race where style matters a whole hell of a lot more than substance.

I only imagine Trump dropping out if he loses a couple of early states badly enough to bruise his fragile ego, or he feels he’s being unfairly maligned by the party establishment, or he just gets bored. All of which could happen. But with Trump, it’s best not to make predictions.

As for Carson, who knows what drives him? There is a theory – I’ve written about it myself – that he is in this race mostly to grab himself some sweet right-wing welfare grift. I’m beginning to wonder if some of us are trying to fit him into that box because the man is a vacuum from which no personality seems to escape. He seems impervious to logic and facts. As we saw in the CNBC debate, if you call him on the obvious impracticalities of something like his tax plan, he simply lies about it and blames the media. And it’s keeping him aloft in the race. It’s hard to imagine him getting bored and dropping out the way you can imagine it with Trump, mostly because he comes off as an android who gets powered down and stored in a poster tube in between public appearances.

The experience of Rubio and Cruz, the fact that both are sitting senators, could still win out in the end. The right-wing media will likely rally behind one or both of them (with the exception of Breitbart, right-wing media already dislikes Trump), and that will go a long way toward bringing along the voters to put those two at the top. But to return to the baseball metaphor, we’ve still got about 18 innings of no-hit ball to go.

By Gary Legum

MORE FROM Gary Legum

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2016 Elections 2016 Republican Primary Ben Carson Donald Trump Editor's Picks Marco Rubio Ted Cruz