In the end, Republicans didn’t much like Ted Cruz.
The party establishment hated him from the start. He had nearly single-handedly destroyed their effort to govern in Congress in the age of Obama, and he insulted GOP leaders in a way that left party elders aghast. When former Speaker John Boehner called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh,” what was most noteworthy wasn’t the barb itself but how little protest it generated in Washington. The establishment would have preferred almost anyone else as their standard-bearer in 2016. Really: Almost anyone else—including, for many of them, Donald Trump, a man who these same top Republicans viewed as a usurper, a phony who talked tough and learned just enough of the conservative language to hoodwink the party’s faithful in state after state.
And ultimately, it was the voters who chose Trump—and rejected Cruz. The first-term Texas senator came to that realization rather suddenly on Tuesday night, after a defeat in Indiana crushed his slim chances of denying Trump the Republican nomination in Cleveland. Earlier in the day, Cruz had denounced the GOP front-runner as a “pathological liar” and a “narcissist.” But when he ended his campaign later that evening in Indiana, he never uttered Trump’s name.
Surrounded by his family, Cruz reminded his supporters that he had always said he would continue his campaign as long as there was a path to victory. “Tonight, I’m sorry to say, it appears that path has been foreclosed,” he said. “Together we left it all on the field in Indiana. We gave it all we got. But the voters chose another path.”
Far from endorsing Trump, Cruz signaled that he was about to join, in spirit if not officially, the collection of conservatives who now believe the 2016 presidential election is a lost cause, that Hillary Clinton is not only the presumptive Democratic nominee but the presumptive 45th president of the United States. Cruz modeled his speech on Ronald Reagan’s address, as a runner-up, to the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City. What he didn’t need to say was that four years after that speech, Reagan ran again and defeated the embattled Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Cruz, who is just 45 years old, didn’t need to lay it out explicitly, but he might as well have launched his 2020 campaign right then and there in Indiana. “Hear me now,” he said instead, “I am not suspending our fight for liberty. I am not suspending our fight to defend the Constitution.”
Republican voters gave Cruz a good long look in 2016. He ran as an uncompromising conservative from the outset, and it looked briefly as if he might stop the Trump train when he defeated the New York billionaire in Iowa in February. But although Cruz picked up a bucket of delegates by winning his home state of Texas, he underperformed throughout the South on Super Tuesday. Cruz was a strong debater and a better organizer, winning repeatedly in caucus states and outlasting Marco Rubio to become the final serious threat to Trump. But he was hamstrung by his awkwardness as a retail campaigner and never made a real effort to make peace with the Republican Party leaders who might have helped him unify the “Never Trump” movement.
Trump regained his footing with landslide wins in New York and then throughout the Northeast. All the while, he continued browbeating Cruz and playing dirty; Trump labeled him “Lyin’ Ted,” promoted reports that Cruz had affairs on the campaign trail, threatened to go after his wife, and finally, in the closing days of the campaign, suggested that Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination. Cruz, in turn, became increasingly desperate. He struck a non-aggression pact with John Kasich to increase his chances in Indiana, and then, just a week before he dropped out, announced that Carly Fiorina would be his running mate if he could only knock off Trump to win the nomination.
None of it worked.
Rather than close the gap with Trump, Cruz fell further. A lead in Indiana polling vanished, and Cruz was on pace to lose the state by more than 15 points. Perhaps most telling, however, was how Republicans seemed to sour on Cruz over time. In Gallup polling, more than half of GOP voters had a favorable image of Cruz when the year started. By late April, just 39 percent did, and 45 percent had an unfavorable view of him.
Republicans took a long look at Cruz, and the more they saw him, the less they liked him. Starting Tuesday night, he’ll have at least four more years to turn those hard feelings around.