Ted Cruz's pyrrhic victory: He's looking better and better -- but that means disaster for the GOP

He may be a longshot, but the anti-establishmentarian is on the ascent. But what's good for Cruz is bad for the GOP

Published November 9, 2015 5:30PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

If you thought Ted Cruz was going away anytime soon, I’ve got some bad news. The singularly annoying obstructionist has real staying power, and he’s as well-positioned as any of the candidates moving forward. The more Cruz irks his opponents, the more he grandstands, the more entrenched and profitable his campaign becomes.

Even Cruz’s Republican colleagues appear resigned to this fact. “Ted Cruz has been branded a ‘wacko bird’ by a Senate colleague,” write Katie Zezima and David Weigel in the Washington Post. “A GOP consultant labeled him a show horse, and a strategist for a rival presidential campaign call him the Mitt Romney of 2016 – the Republican no other Republican can stand.”

Harsh words indeed, but none of this matters to Cruz. He knows he’s hated by his colleagues in the Senate and by establishment Republicans in general. But this is a good thing for Cruz. Being loathed by those responsible for governing plays right into his "outsider" narrative. When then-Speaker Boehner called Cruz a “jackass” earlier this year, he responded by saying, “I will wear it as a badge of honor because I refuse to join their club.” The “club,” I presume, is everyone in Washington making a serious effort to navigate the challenges of policymaking in a partisan climate.

Understanding this is key to understanding Cruz’s appeal. There’s a huge swath of the conservative base that doesn’t want to fix Washington so much as explode it (politically speaking, of course). Every time one of those Washington politicians (the “Washington cartel,” as Cruz is fond of saying) criticizes Cruz for his self-serving obstinacy, he capitalizes by sending out fundraising emails touting his anti-establishment credentials. And it’s working.

So far the race has unfolded perfectly for Cruz. His only path to the nomination is as an outsider, someone who can appeal to religious and anti-government conservatives. Cruz is playing the long game right now. He’s comfortably in fourth place in the national polls, just behind Trump, Carson and Rubio.

Cruz’s bet, however, is that Trump and Carson eventually collapse. Although it’s possible that Trump and Carson hang around until the convention, it’s not the most likely scenario. Trump has proven himself vulnerable in recent months, and one suspects his farcical adventure could end at any moment. The RNC also knows Trump would be a disaster as a general election candidate, and they’ll do everything possible to torpedo his campaign. I’m not confident they can stop Trump, but it remains to be seen.

Carson’s implosion may be underway already. He’s out of his depth and he’s lied with impunity for the entirety of his campaign. But he’s yet to pay a political price for that dishonesty. Things have changed, however. The increased scrutiny that comes with being a frontrunner has damaged Carson’s brand, and it’s not clear that he can survive for much longer. If Carson does slip in the polls, especially in Iowa, it’s Cruz who is most likely to benefit.

If Trump and Carson do fall, that leaves a massive opening for Cruz in the outsider conservative lane. He’s the logical alternative for Trump and Carson supporters. Cruz knows it, too -- he’s been waiting patiently for this to happen. And now that Jeb’s political misadventure is coming to an end, there is only one establishment candidate for Cruz to attack: Marco Rubio.

According to a new Bloomberg report, Cruz is already working to brand Rubio as a “moderate.”

“As I look at the race, historically,” Cruz said, “there have been two major lanes in the Republican primary. There’s been a moderate lane and a conservative lane. Marco is certainly formidable in that [moderate] lane.” This is a smart move on Cruz’s part: Calling Rubio a “moderate” is a not-so-thinly-veiled insult in this Republican climate. The base is clamoring for a right-wing outsider, and will reflexively reject anyone who doesn’t fit the bill.

Cruz is still a long-shot to win the nomination, but things are shaping up as well as they possibly could for him at this point. This race will, ultimately, come down to a battle between the establishment and the base. History says the establishment will win, but I’m not so sure that will happen in 2016. In any case, Cruz’s only real competition for the non-establishment choice is Trump and Carson, and my money’s on Cruz.

Rubio may end up with the nomination by the end of the convention, but Cruz will make the process as difficult as possible. And like nearly everything else Cruz does, that will be great for him and ruinous to the GOP.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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2016 Elections 2016 Republican Primary Conservatives Gop Establishment Ted Cruz The Right