Among many of the Republican Party’s smart set—the strategists, lobbyists, and elected officials who congregate every four years at GOP conventions—the assumption is that this year’s presidential election is already lost. How can Donald Trump win if he only carries 14 percent of the Latino vote, if he loses college-educated white women, if he has the highest unfavorable rating of any nominee in memory? Attention is quietly turning to the aftermath, to what lesson the party will learn as it surveys the wreckage of another presidential election—the sixth out of seven—in which a Democrat wins the popular vote.
The idea that Republicans would respond by moving to the center—wooing Latinos with immigration reform, women with a softer position on Planned Parenthood, young people with an acceptance of climate change—is probably the opposite of where the party will go. This week, one primetime convention speaker represents the future of conservatism more than any other: Senator Ted Cruz.
Cruz? The most hated man in Congress? The Texas Republican blamed for shutting down the government in a disastrous effort to undo Obamacare? Yes, because Cruz offers the most compelling narrative to GOP primary voters about where the party should go next. Over and over again, in advance of his 2016 candidacy and during that campaign, Cruz told a story about Republican presidential nominees—who won, who lost, and why:
We need to look to history and what works and what doesn’t … One thing [that] is clear is if Republicans run another candidate in the mold of a Bob Dole, or a John McCain, or a Mitt Romney—and all three of those are good, honorable men, they’re decent men, they’re patriots. But if we run another candidate in the mold of a Bob Dole, or a John McCain, or Mitt Romney, we will end up with the same result, which is millions of people will stay home on Election Day. And if we run another candidate like that, Hillary Clinton will be president.
It’s not a story that Cruz invented. Leading conservatives—from Rick Santorum to Phyllis Schlafly—have been saying similar things for years. But no Republican embodies that message more than Cruz, the anti-establishment bomb thrower who is predictably to the right of everybody on just about everything.
If Trump fails to win, you can bet he will fit nicely into Cruz’s litany of losers (minus the part where he talks what honorable, decent men they are): Of course, Donald Trump lost. He was a New York City liberal, pro-abortion for years, supported gun control, donated to liberal Democrats, didn’t fight for traditional marriage.
Never mind that strategists like Karl Rove have demonstrated that the “millions of Republicans stayed home” story is fiction. (The conservative share of the electorate hit a record high in 2012.) The political reality is that, since Barry Goldwater, the party has never run the experiment of nominating the most rightward-leaning candidate in the race. Today’s Republican primary voters—substantially more conservative than even GOP general-election voters—have never played out the fantasy of a purist nominee rousing millions of voters who otherwise wouldn’t turn out. And no potential 2020 candidate has as much going for him as Cruz.
First, this year’s Republican platform provides a pretty good sense of the right’s activist heartbeat—and it is the most conservative the party has produced in decades, a document that could have been written by Cruz’s office.
Second, there is a Republican tradition of nominating the runner-up from the previous cycle (from George H.W. Bush to Dole to McCain to Romney). Cruz won more than 7.6 million votes, coming in second to Trump. And he has acquired ring savvy: Having been through it before, presidential candidates are almost always more effective the second time around.
Third, Cruz has arguably the best fundraising network in GOP politics, a powerful combination of both high-dollar super PAC donors and small-donor grassroots volunteers.
Finally, Cruz is already preparing his next campaign—replacing his Senate chief of staff, a Capitol Hill veteran, with a presidential-campaign consultant, and setting up affiliated super PACs. His team also spent the last several days lobbying in Cleveland to change the rules for 2020. Cruz wants primaries closed to the independents who typically support more moderate candidates.
Many elite commentators are hoping that a Trump defeat will lead to a more centrist Republican party—just as President Obama was convinced, four years ago, that Romney’s loss would “break the fever” of GOP obstruction. It didn’t work. To really break the Republican fever, the only prescription is Ted Cruz becoming the nominee—and losing.