Flameout

The Cruel Paradox That Explains Ted Cruz’s Rise and Fall

After alienating his colleagues, few rallied to support the Texas senator’s presidential bid. He dropped out on Tuesday.

Ted Cruz Ends Presidential Bid

Ted Cruz rose in the presidential race by painting Republican leaders as sellouts and insisting only he had the courage to fight a broken system. Those same elites returned the favor by snubbing him when it mattered most, refusing to rally the party behind him and all but ensuring that Donald Trump will be the nominee after winning Indiana.

“What goes around comes around in politics,” said Ron Bonjean, a former senior aide to several congressional Republican leaders. “It's very clear he's dug his own grave. And he'll have to live with that. By taking a flamethrower to the Senate floor he ended up burning himself in the process.”

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Cruz announced he'll drop out of the race on Tuesday night. “We gave it everything we've got,” he told a crowd in Indianapolis, “but the voters chose another path.”

Brian Walsh, a former Republican leadership aide who worked for Senator John Cornyn, Cruz's home-state colleague, said the presidential hopeful had gone “out of his way to make so many enemies that when he needs allies they're not there.”

“His own arrogance has contributed to where he is today,” Walsh said. “His colleagues, especially in recent weeks, have been looking for a reason to support him despite the past history, and even now he won't meet them halfway.”

Indeed, several Republican leaders have made their deepest marks on the Republican presidential race by voicing opposition to the Texas firebrand.

‘Lucifer In the Flesh’

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol on April 16, 2015, in Washington.
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol on April 16, 2015, in Washington.
Photographer: Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images

Former House Speaker John Boehner last week called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh” and the most “miserable son of a bitch” he has ever worked with. Former Senator Judd Gregg termed Cruz a “demagogue’s demagogue” whom he'd never back. Republican luminaries Trent Lott and Bob Dole have also indicated they prefer Trump over Cruz. Ex-rival Marco Rubio called Cruz “the only one” who fits his preference of nominating a conservative, though he stopped short of endorsing him after dropping out in mid-March. Vast swaths of GOP financiers never warmed up to Cruz, despite endorsements from several former presidential rivals.

“He's not a fan favorite. I don't know anyone that raves about him. There's not one person that says to me, ‘You’ve gotta meet this guy, you're gonna like him,’” said Brian Ballard, a major Republican donor based in Florida who supported Jeb Bush in the primary and raised money for past nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Ballard described electability as another factor. “I just never really thought that Cruz was a viable person. I don't think he's got the type of draw to win a general election,” he said. “I think he's a divider. I don't have any desire to be helpful to him.”

A palpable anger overcame Cruz on Tuesday morning as he ripped into Trump as a “pathological liar,” “narcissist,” “bully” and a “serial philanderer,” after Trump linked his father to John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, echoing a conspiracy theory that lacks evidence. America is “staring at the abyss” with a potential Trump nomination, Cruz told reporters, and “it is only Indiana that can pull us back.” A CNN poll Monday found that 91 percent of Republicans believe Trump will be their nominee.

Rick Tyler, a former communications director for the Cruz campaign, had choice words for GOP establishment figures who snubbed him. “Small, petty and petulant,” he said. “It's got to be personal because I don't understand which issues he's running on that they're not going to be able to work with a President Cruz on.”

Cost of Breaking Out

With victories in Iowa and on Super Tuesday, Cruz solidified his standing as the only Republican competitive with Trump, disproving skeptics who likened him to past one-hit-wonders Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who won Iowa and flamed out. But that has only intensified the animosity of some foes. Representative Peter King called Cruz a “fraud and a hoax” for leading an effort to defund Obamacare that culminated in the 2013 government shutdown.

T

Senator Ted Cruz listens as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington.
Senator Ted Cruz listens as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington.
Photographer: Rob Carr/Getty Images

he shutdown failed to make a dent in the health care law, but it turned Cruz into a national hero among conservatives. And he took advantage of it. In subsequent battles such as blocking President Barack Obama’s immigration policies and shutting the Export-Import Bank, Cruz embraced hardline positions and portrayed his colleagues as cowardly when they acquiesced to cutting a deal with Democrats to prevent disruptions to the basic functions of government.

A former congressional GOP aide who had a front-row seat to Cruz's political warfare and spoke on condition of anonymity said the Texan staked out positions he knew were impossible for the party to sustain, and sought to position himself as a conservative martyr when those fights were lost.

“In the effort to build his personal legend,” the former aide said, Cruz “fanned the flames among the base” that congressional Republicans were too afraid to fight, and thereby inflated expectations of what conservatives could achieve with Obama in office.

That personal legend became the foundation of Cruz’s presidential bid, which promised to combine ideological purity with a fighting spirit to upend a corrupt establishment. It helped him with a GOP base that feels abandoned by its own leaders. The downside is the Texan is so isolated in the Senate he has trouble getting approval for routinely-granted procedural motions such as a “sufficient second” on a roll call vote. Still, he has refused to apologize for remarks such as accusing McConnell of telling “a flat-out lie” on the Senate floor in 2015.

April Nosedive

“That ain't gonna happen,” Cruz said last month on CNN about the prospect of reconsidering an apology to McConnell. “And if the Washington lobbyists want to see that happen, they can hold their breath a long, long time.” It revealed the Texan's paradox: maintaining enemies imposes limits on his base of support, but making nice with party leaders risks undercutting his core appeal. Cruz's attack has boomeranged on him as Trump's derisive “Lyin’ Ted” moniker has stuck.

Cruz's narrow appeal left him little room for error among his base of very conservative and evangelical voters. His net favorable rating among Republicans has fallen by a whopping 52 points since January—including by 21 points in the month of April as Trump gained 12, according to Gallup's tracking poll

A campaign that began with a house-by-house victory in Iowa couldn't prevent Trump from piercing Cruz's “Southern firewall” in the coming weeks with victories in South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. While Cruz went on to rack up wins in smaller states, caucuses and GOP conventions, Trump's lead was never challenged, and he expanded it later in the delegate-rich Northeast, Rust Belt and states spanning Florida to Arizona.

“If you look back on it, Ted Cruz may have lost this in South Carolina as much as any place else,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and a polling analyst for Bloomberg Politics. “If you're going to be a factional candidate—the candidate of Southern, very conservative Republicans, you better win Southern, very conservative states.”

Wisconsin, the high-water mark of Cruz's campaign, indicated he could transcend his core base when party elites were behind him. Enjoying enthusiastic support from Governor Scott Walker and the state’s vibrant conservative activist and talk-radio community, Cruz swept voters there across sex, age, education attainment, income, and even won Trump's strong-suit of “somewhat conservative” voters, according to exit polls. Cruz celebrated the victory as a “turning point” that would stop Trump.

No Cavalry

But Indiana suggests Wisconsin was an outlier. The Hoosier State's large share of evangelical and conservative voters failed to propel Cruz to victory as he lacked a strong network to broaden support. Governor Mike Pence waited until four days before the primary to announce his support for Cruz, but the announcement was tepid and muddled as Pence also praised Trump in the same interview. Cruz received zero endorsements from Indiana’s eight-member Republican congressional delegation.

Cruz's nearly three-dozen House endorsements, many in the Texas delegation, were like-minded conservatives who lacked the ability to broaden his appeal. The House Freedom Caucus, a bloc of influential conservatives who share Cruz's ideology and goals, broadly prefers him to Trump. But the group steered clear of the race because Trump is popular in its members' deep-red districts, according to people with knowledge of its decision-making.

Senator Ted Cruz shakes hands with Donald Trump during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 9, 2015.
Senator Ted Cruz shakes hands with Donald Trump during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 9, 2015.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Cruz himself played nice with Trump early in the race, which some Republicans believe was a strategic blunder. He met and posed with Trump at Trump Tower in July; he appeared with him at a rally in Washington; in December he praised Trump as “terrific.” The niceties ended in early January when Trump, polling strong nationally and hoping to leapfrog Cruz in Iowa, questioned whether Cruz's birth in Canada makes him eligible to be president.

“Damned if he doesn't wake up every morning and say, ‘God, why did I kiss this guy's ass for a year?’ I thought it was terrible political judgment,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist who has vowed never to support Trump. “I know it matters to a lot of the donor community” that Cruz didn't take him on at the time, he added.

Between his smashing defeats in New York and other Northeastern states in April, the remarkably steady Cruz began to show signs of desperation. He cut a deal with rival John Kasich in which the Ohio governor would not campaign in Indiana and Cruz would not campaign in Oregon or New Mexico (a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found that a majority of Indiana GOP voters disapproved of it). Last Wednesday, a day after Trump's five-state sweep, Cruz made the unusual move of announcing a running mate, Carly Fiorina, amid dimming prospects.

In his Indiana concession speech, Cruz vowed to pursue his conservative agenda. 

“Our movement will continue,” Cruz said. “And I give you my word that I will continue this fight with all of my strength and all of my ability.”

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