Stuck with Ted: The GOP establishment is grudgingly, reluctantly joining Team Cruz

Lindsey Graham and his establishment pals are gritting their teeth and backing the only viable non-Trump option

Published March 18, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

Ted Cruz   (Reuters/Jason Miczek)
Ted Cruz (Reuters/Jason Miczek)

If you were to pick one Republican senator out of the many who serve in Congress who would be least likely to throw his support behind Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, it would have to be Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina senator is the living embodiment of everything Cruz inveighs against: He’s an establishment barnacle, he cuts deals with Democrats on big issues like immigration, and he’s a big supporter of neoconservative foreign policies. And the two have publicly clashed before. On foreign policy, Graham has called Cruz “just as wrong as Obama, if not worse.” Graham has said that Cruz is an “opportunist” with “no credibility.” They’ve fought on everything from presidential nominations to healthcare to government shutdowns. A few weeks ago, Graham joked that “if you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”

And yet, just Thursday, Lindsey Graham announced that he was going to do everything he can to help Ted Cruz win the presidency, including fundraising and… well, at this point it’s just raising money. But still, for Lindsey Graham of all people to bite the bullet and sign up for Team Cruz is a pretty strong indicator of how thoroughly desperate Republicans are to stop Donald Trump.

Cruz hasn’t exactly been a popular presidential candidate on Capitol Hill. For a while he was the only candidate who had not been endorsed by a sitting senator (even Donald Trump had Jeff Sessions in his corner). Senate Republicans were instead rallying around Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and this suited Cruz perfectly well. His whole political identity is that of the anti-establishment rebel, the guy Republicans in D.C. love to hate. He deliberately provoked the ire and disrespect of his Senate colleagues to prove to conservatives that he was standing up to the establishment and fighting for conservative causes. But now that both Jeb and Rubio have slinked off the presidential stage, victims of the Donald Trump insurgency, Cruz is emerging as the reluctant choice for establishment Republicans who still hate him but don’t know where else to turn.

That may seem like good news for Cruz, but he actually finds himself in a precarious position here. If Cruz had run a stronger campaign for president, he could welcome the trickling support of the Republican establishment by making the argument that he had fought his way to the top of the party and earned their respect and loyalty as the leader of a conservative revolution. But that’s not what is happening now.

Cruz is losing to Trump, and he’s losing pretty badly. He put up some disappointing results in the March 15 contests, where he’d hoped to steal a state or two from Trump, but instead ended up taking fewer delegates than John Kasich. He hasn’t conquered the party; he’s lasted long enough that the party is reluctantly bolstering him as the only plausible alternative to Trump. And people like Lindsey Graham and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are making clear that Cruz is not their preferred candidate even as they lend Cruz their support. “The only thing I can say now is my hope and my prayer is that Sen. Cruz can come through this,” Haley, a former Rubio supporter, said this week in getting behind Cruz. “That's who privately I'm fighting for. I do see a path for him, because I think he's been solid and strong the entire way. I think that he's been disciplined in the way that he's done it.”

Lindsey Graham was even blunter when describing the political calculations he’s made. “I think he’s the best alternative to Donald Trump,” Graham said of Cruz on CNN, hurriedly spitting out the words as if they were ashes on this tongue. “He’s certainly not my preference, Sen. Cruz is not. But he’s a reliable Republican conservative of which I’ve had many differences with.” Asked if he was actually endorsing Cruz, Graham hedged. “What I’m saying, you know, John Kasich, I think, is the most viable general election candidate,” Graham explained. “I just don’t see how John gets through the primary.”

Cruz doesn’t look like the conquering hero here. He looks like the candidate of last resort, the “break glass in case of emergency” option. He’s being bolstered by the people who loathe him only because he’s still slightly more tolerable than the voters’ preferred candidate. It’s precisely the sort of alliance of convenience that Cruz has railed against as a senator. He wanted to win by being the Republican establishment’s worst nightmare, not by being the tool of a Republican establishment that is scared of something much more dangerous than Ted Cruz.

By Simon Maloy

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