Last week in New Hampshire, Ted Cruz actively fueled an emerging narrative that the Republican establishment was “rushing to Donald Trump” in an attempt to stop the Texas firebrand's rise in the presidential race.
While some establishment Republicans have said they'd prefer Trump to Cruz, many others see the New York billionaire as the more dangerous bet. Strategists in that camp are urging party elders not to aid Trump ahead of the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.
“When a candidate openly embraces white supremacist supporters, that’s a clear line in the sand,” said Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini, referring to the fact that Trump is supported by white nationalists and has elevated them on social media. “Anyone sensible trying to prop up Trump in Iowa is playing a dangerous, dangerous game.”
Ruffini continued: “Iowa is Trump's toughest state of the first four, and presents a golden opportunity to weaken him. If Trump loses Iowa, we might actually get to have an argument about whether the party should nominate Cruz or someone from the establishment lane. But that won’t be the debate unless Trump is dealt with first.”
For some Republicans, Trump is by far the less palatable alternative between the two men leading the GOP presidential field.
Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, singled out Trump in an op-ed earlier this month as the candidate he “cannot support,” even if he won the nomination, attributing it to the New Yorker's “perversion of conservatism, along with the devastating impact he would have if nominated.”
Republican lobbyist and veteran strategist Ed Rogers also prefers the Texan to the New Yorker. “He is a real Republican,” Rogers said of Cruz in an e-mail. “Proven commitment to conservative principles. Not irrational or an egomaniac.”
The views challenge a prevailing narrative that emerged after numerous Republican elders—including 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and House Homeland Security Committee Chair Peter King—said they'd prefer Trump over Cruz.
Indeed, anger toward Cruz runs deep among GOP leaders. The Texan has spent much of the last three years attacking the party's hierarchy as feckless and dishonest on TV, the campaign trail, and even from the floor of the Senate. Though a regular donor to politicians of both parties, Trump has, until this year, remained an outsider to beltway turf wars, sparing him the scars born by his outspoken Republican rival.
“This has been overblown because a small number of people who really don't like Cruz are happy to say he's worse than Trump,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and former House GOP leadership spokesman. “People have been personally burned by Cruz and really don't like him but if they give Trump long enough, he'll burn them too.”
A senior congressional Republican aide, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, agreed with Cooper. “People hate Cruz because they've had to deal with him. Haven't had that experience with Trump yet,” the aide said, confessing that he'd vote for Cruz if they were his only two choices.
There's no consensus within the party's establishment as to which of the two candidates represents the greater threat. According to numerous GOP strategists with establishment connections who spoke on condition of anonymity, Trump's upside is that he's a businessman who they believe may be more pragmatic than ideological when push comes to shove, while Cruz's upside is that he's a longtime devotee to conservative causes (unlike Trump, who has famously voiced liberal views in the past) and more predictable.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who is supporting former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, captured the sentiments of party elites when he told reporters last week that picking between Trump and Cruz was like choosing “death by being shot or poisoning.”
Many party elders are desperate for a third candidate to rise up and defeat both Trump, who enjoys a lead of about 15 points in national surveys, and second-place Cruz.
“Although an argument could be made that Trump might bring out more new voters than Cruz, the reality is that both would be extremely problematic at the top of the ticket not just for GOP hopes of winning the White House but holding the Senate as well,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican operative who worked for Senate leadership and its electoral arm. “Instead of working to grow the Republican Party, Trump and Cruz have gone out of their way to alienate moderates, independents, and Hispanics, all of whom are critical to winning in November.”