In the days before he ended his own failed bid for the presidency, Ted Cruz denounced Donald Trump as “utterly amoral,” a “serial philanderer,” and a “pathological liar.” Two months later, Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump during a primetime speech provided the Republican convention with its most stunning display of party disunity.
The move got Cruz booed off the stage by Trump supporters, but it earned him a measure of respect from the nominee’s most ardent opponents.
Six weeks before the election, however, Cruz appears to be wavering.
“He thinks about it every day,” the Texas senator’s former campaign manager, Jeff Roe, said at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast on Wednesday when asked about a possible endorsement. He predicted Cruz would have “an answer before Election Day” and said that Trump’s improved campaign of late has been “helpful.”
Later in the day, the Trump campaign issued a press release backing the lonely fight Cruz has been waging in the Senate to stop the Obama administration from giving up U.S. oversight over the internet’s master directory of web addresses. Cruz has characterized the move as relinquishing American control of the internet to foreign powers, although tech experts say he is vastly overstating its impact. Cruz promptly replied to Trump’s support with a public thank you:
Why would Cruz endorse Trump now after snubbing him so publicly in Cleveland, where he told Republicans to “vote your conscience?” There are a number of factors at play. For one, Trump has been gaining in the polls and, for the moment at least, no longer looks like the lost electoral cause he did a month ago, when Hillary Clinton appeared to be on the verge of a landslide victory. As The Donald might say, nothing sells like winning, and if Cruz thought Trump might be the next president, his window for hopping aboard is closing by the day. Cruz clearly wants to run for president in 2020 if Trump loses, and that prospect likely disappears unless Cruz plans on challenging an incumbent in his own party in four years.
Cruz’s more immediate concern is his Senate reelection bid in 2018. He long ago alienated the Republican leadership in Congress by building up his personal brand through criticism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former House Speaker John Boehner. There is speculation that Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas congressman and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, will challenge Cruz in a primary. And in an extraordinary brush-off of his home state colleague, Senator John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, refused to endorse Cruz’s renomination in Texas. (Cruz similarly rebuffed Cornyn when he faced a primary challenge in 2014.) In another indication of Cruz’s low standing with the leadership, McConnell exclude Cruz’s internet-freedom proposal from a stopgap spending bill the Senate will consider next week.
Now Cruz finds himself at odds both with the party’s congressional leaders and with the man who won the GOP presidential nomination by outflanking Cruz as the anti-establishment candidate. Simple political math dictates that he has to start making amends somewhere. Trump could use the endorsement both as a confirmation of his momentum in the race and to help bring some disaffected conservatives along, particularly those who might be considering a vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee.
Still, the risk for Cruz is that he loses the respect of “Never Trump” Republicans by giving a last-minute, politically calculated endorsement to a man who suggested his father was involved in the Kennedy assassination—and did so again after he won the party’s nomination. “I think it makes perfect political sense to endorse a guy likely at any moment to emasculate and embarrass you afterwards,” conservative radio host Steve Deace tweeted. Right now, Cruz along with John Kasich among potential 2020 contenders can claim the purity of having resisted jumping on the Trump bandwagon. An endorsement before November 8 would cede that territory to the Ohio governor.
Cruz faces the same decision he confronted in the summer: Hold out, and face retribution if Trump wins (and perhaps blame if he loses), or give in and squander the good will he won with his defiant convention stand. All in all, it’s another no-win situation for a guy who already lost.