A few weeks ago, Ted Cruz’s calculus for declining to attack Donald Trump seemed obvious: Trump was rallying exactly the core anti-immigration base Cruz had long cultivated, so by sticking out Trump’s inevitable fall, the Texas senator would be the obvious alternative for those followers.
But now that it looks like nothing will knock Teflon Trump out of the race anytime soon, Cruz is running the risk that Trump will ultimately usurp Cruz’s brand, his base of support, and the rationale for his entire candidacy.
“Donald Trump has out-Ted Cruz-ed Ted Cruz,” Luis Alvarado, a GOP consultant, told TPM. “He’s probably kicking furniture in his living room.”
Since Trump jumped into the race, Cruz has resisted opportunities to criticize him, telling reporters he would avoid “Republican-on-Republican violence.”
Never mind that the mantra did not apply to his 2016 rivals Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) or Jeb Bush, who Cruz has slammed for supporting “amnesty,” nor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for that matter, who has become Cruz’s punching bag on the campaign trail.
Cruz even set up a meeting with Trump in mid-July (“I don’t know why I’m meeting him,” Trump told Morning Joe) complete with a photo-op tweeted out by Cruz’s campaign spokesman.
— Rick Tyler (@rickwtyler) July 16, 2015
The rest of the field has incrementally turned on Trump: for bashing Mexicans, for bashing Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), or — the latest red line — for bashing Megyn Kelly. For those looking for a poll bump, picking a fight with The Donald was the easiest way to get attention. But even the heavy hitters that have otherwise sought to stay above the fray have begun taking swings at the billionaire.
“Donald Trump’s just using the same old tired talking points of the Democrats and they didn’t work in the past and they’re certainly not going to work in Iowa,” Walker told Fox News Tuesday. Previously, Walker made a point to pivot any criticisms towards Hillary Clinton.
But not Cruz, who on Monday said attacking Trump was “foolish.”
“Donald Trump had a rally in Phoenix, Ariz. [to which] between 10 and 20 thousand people came out. When you attack and vilify the people at that rally as crazies, it does nothing to help Republicans win in 2016,” Cruz told Politico. “I’d like every single person at that rally to show up and vote in 2016, knock on doors with energy and passion, and turn this country around. If Washington politicians show contempt and condescension to those [voters,] that is a path to losing at the ballot box.”
The remark was perhaps Cruz’s clearest hint as to what he was betting on: that if and when Trump does leave race, his supporters will head straight towards Cruz’s direction.
“Maybe Cruz gets them by December, maybe Cruz has to wait until the Southern state strategy,” Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, told TPM. “Cruz is the most logical choice, but then again, there has been nothing logical about this race so far.”
As if playing along with Cruz’s game, Trump has responded to the senator’s loyalty in kind. Trump told his 3.7 million Twitter followers Monday that, “Ted Cruz had a very good debate, far better than Rand Paul.” Sen. Paul (R-KY) has recently embarked on his own anti-Trump strategy.
.@SenTedCruz had a very good debate, far better than Rand Paul.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 11, 2015
The question is whether that will play against Cruz in the long run, now that it doesn’t look like Trump is going anywhere anytime soon.
“If Mr. Trump remains in the race through Iowa, but frozen, dividing the anti-establishment, megalomaniac vote, Senator Cruz has nowhere to go,” wrote Alex Castellano in IJReview.
And is there a point at which Cruz, too, can be pushed over the edge?
“There is no obligation for any candidate to comment on what another campaign says or does,” Stuart Stevens, a veteran of the Mitt Romney campaign, said in an email to TPM. (Stevens’ firm is advising Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) in the race). “No one in either party is running for president because Donald Trump is running. Nor has Donald Trump qualified for the ballot yet in any state or ever done so before in a long career,” Stevens said.
There may be a time when Trump crosses a line with the Texas senator as well. An equal opportunity birther, Trump once questioned whether Cruz’s Canadian roots disqualified him from the presidency.
“Cruz is leaving his options as open as possible here,” O’Connell said. “If he takes a stand and turns his people off, he finds himself in ‘what could have should have been,’ but if you have to take a stand on Donald Trump further on down the line, he still has the option.”
But at this point, according to some analysts, it’s not just the 2016 race Cruz is thinking about.
“Donald Trump is using the Ted Cruz formula to engage the base of the party. Unfortunately for Ted Cruz, Donald Trump [is doing that] much better than Ted Cruz would have ever done,” Alvarado said. “That base is what is going to keep Ted Cruz going, even after this presidential is done. He cannot afford to alienate himself from that segment in our party. If he does, he is going to diminish his own brand.”