Republican Establishment Nightmare: Ted Cruz 2020

The Texas senator keeps the door open for another presidential run in four years.

Ted Cruz Drops Out of 2016 Race

While some Republican elites saw karmic justice in Ted Cruz suffering a fatal defeat and ending his presidential bid Tuesday in Indiana, they also experienced a nagging fear: the 45-year-old Texan could return in 2020.

If Donald Trump is nominated in July and loses the general election, Cruz, the runner-up, would have a sprawling campaign organization, the precedent of Ronald Reagan and an argument to pursue the prize again. Cruz's speech announcing his intent to drop out had a cliffhanger.

“Hear me now. I am not suspending our fight for liberty. I am not suspending our fight to defend the Constitution,” said Cruz, a Texas senator. “Our movement will continue. And I give you my word that I will continue this fight with all of my strength and all of my ability.”

Cruz invoked Reagan's 1976 convention speech, when he was the runner-up for the nomination, and won it four years later. “I think of the speech that Ronald Reagan gave to our party,” Cruz said. “He spoke not of the next four years. ... Ronald Reagan spoke of the next 100 years.”

Many party elites worry Cruz will blame a Trump defeat on the real-estate developer's ideological philandering over the years, and argue that Republicans must nominate a staunchly conservative figure.

“The hope has been that after several years of intra-party warfare this election would offer some level of clarity by settling the question of whether we only go after conservatives or we seek to broaden the party,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant and former leadership aide.

Cruz argued that his nomination in 2016 would have spurred a conservative turnout that would win the party the presidency. Walsh disputed that, saying conservatives turned out in 2008 and 2012.

“The problem is we lost with young voters, we lost with women, we lost with minorities,” he said.

After the 2012 election, the GOP establishment formally concluded that the party must modernize and expand its appeal with Hispanics and unmarried women. Conservative activists disagree, saying a victory requires nominating an ideological purist who will excite the base and supercharge conservative voter turnout. 

Rick Tyler, a former communications director for the Cruz campaign, said Cruz's warnings about Trump will look “prophetic” by the next presidential election cycle.

“I would assume if Trump wins the nomination, he'll lose the general election badly and bring down the party ticket,” Tyler said. In that scenario, “we'll have proven over and over again that a moderate can't win the election, and that a celebrity with no underlying philosophy or principles can't win. So why not try a consistent conservative for once? He'll look like an attractive alternative.”

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss saw Cruz's parting speech as a prelude to 2020.

If he runs again in 2020, Cruz is likely to position himself as the purer candidate than rumored hopefuls who have tried to meld conservatism and pragmatism, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, or even erstwhile rival Marco Rubio, who has a conservative record but who was painted as unreliable by Cruz. The Texan's likely challenge would be the limited appeal and broad establishment opposition that hindered his 2016 campaign.

Some Cruz supporters at his Indiana election night event were already on board with a re-run in 2020.

Cruz “absolutely” should run again in 2020 if he's not the nominee in 2016, said Bob Moore, 70, an engineering consultant from Goshen and a Tea Party activist who said he spent primary day waving Cruz signs to voters entering polling locations in Elkhart County, Indiana.

Moore argued that the senator would learn from his first run, and he has attributes he wants in a presidential candidate: integrity, Christian values, and a knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. “I think he should run, and I think he'd be an excellent president.”

Other Cruz fans were more circumspect.

“Like in a basketball series you never talk about the next series until after the current one is over,” said James Brestin, a television engineer who wore a Cruz hat, sticker and t-shirt, and lined up more than an hour early for Cruz's party at a renovated train station in downtown Indianapolis.

Asked whether Cruz should run in 2020 if he loses the nomination this year, Paul Refior, 65, said, “It depends on what the country's like then.”

Ron Bonjean, a Washington-based Republican consultant who has worked for several congressional leaders, anticipated that Cruz could make a case for the nomination in 2020.

“He can say that, but he's already shown an inability to run an effective campaign against a front-running candidate,” he said. “The idea that he'd be the one to take the medal next time probably isn't there.”

Cruz could find some solace from Trump, who praised his former rival as “a tough, smart guy” during his Indiana victory speech. 

“He has got an amazing future,” Trump said. 

—With assistance from Mark Niquette and Terrence Dopp in Indiana.

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