The Republican establishment copes with disaster: There's no escaping the impossible choice of Donald Trump vs. Ted Cruz

The hard reality of this losing battle is starting to sink in among party insiders

Published March 7, 2016 6:58PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Donald Trump   (Reuters/Carlos Barria/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)
Ted Cruz, Donald Trump (Reuters/Carlos Barria/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)

After another weekend of primaries and caucuses, the Republican race for president has crystallized even further. We’re looking at two-candidate race down the stretch: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Cruz secured two more victories in Kansas and Maine, bringing his overall count to six. Trump neutralized Cruz’s gains with two more wins in Kentucky and Louisiana, cementing his position in the broader delegate race.

Marco Rubio finished a paltry third in each of the states. For all his contrived optimism, Rubio’s campaign is inert and increasingly futile. He insists that “the map only gets better” for him moving forward, but the truth is that he’s already lost. He’s won two contests thus far, Minnesota and Puerto Rico, and he’s dumped all his eggs in the Florida basket, where he still trails Trump by double digits in virtually every poll. After March 15, when both Florida and Ohio hold primaries, Rubio’s slow-motion collapse will begin to accelerate.

There’s now little doubt that Cruz is the only viable alternative to Trump. To call this a disaster for the establishment doesn’t quite do it justice. To begin with, it’s highly unlikely – though not impossible – that Trump or Cruz could win a general election. Both men have uncommonly high unfavorability ratings, particularly among moderates, and that portends failure in a national contest.

Trump may well be the GOP’s best hope in 2016, assuming the only other choice is Ted Cruz. Despite his puerile and bigoted rhetoric, Trump makes the requisite noises about deal-making and compromising, something Cruz is constitutionally opposed to.

Cruz has run a smart campaign, but he’s totalizing purist with limited appeal. His obsession with being a “true conservative” as well as his ties to religious crackpots will alienate huge swathes of voters in a match-up against Clinton or Sanders. Nevertheless, he’s the last man standing in the not-Trump field.

The reality of a Trump-Cruz battle is starting to sink in among party insiders, and the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. Of all the candidates, Trump and Cruz are easily the least liked. The GOP donor class wants to win, but they’re acutely aware of the toxicity of a Trump or Cruz-led ticket. They’re also running out of time.

As Politico reports, the GOP is scrambling to marshal the resources needed to blunt Trump’s momentum, but to no avail. Turns out donors are hesitant to attack Trump if it serves Cruz, who many Republicans find “just as objectionable as Trump.” “It is why it has been so difficult to get an anti-Trump campaign together,” one Republican strategist told Politico. “If the ultimate beneficiary of anti-Trump efforts is Ted Cruz, the effort itself is probably not worthwhile.”

Such is the dilemma the Republican establishment now faces. They can’t stop Trump, who is devouring the party and its brand, without uniting behind a single candidate. But every candidate they’ve rallied behind, from Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio, has imploded. Now the choice is to back Trump or Cruz, both of whom are disastrous general election candidates.

To make matters worse, Trump and Cruz are now actively lobbying for a two-man race. “If you want to beat Donald Trump,” Cruz said once again this weekend, “we have to stand united as one.” By standing united Cruz means bailing on Rubio and Kasich and throwing total support behind his campaign. Trump echoed Cruz’s message in Florida on Saturday, saying he “would like Marco to drop out.”

So determined is Cruz to force the establishment’s hand that he’s now opening ten additional offices in Florida, not in order to win (he knows he’s not competitive) but rather to dim Rubio’s support enough to ensure he loses to Trump. Rubio was likely to lose anyway, but Cruz’s efforts may be the nail in the coffin.

In a week or so, Republicans will be staring their worst nightmare in the face: Trump and Cruz will be the clear favorites heading into the convention, and there will be no good options left. As Mel Martinez, former Republican National Committee chairman told Politico, “Deny Trump, there is division. Accept Trump and there is division. Not a good scenario.”

Not a good scenario indeed, but it's happening and the GOP will have to deal with it, one way or the other.

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

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Marco Rubio Republican Party Ted Cruz