If the Rubio vs. Cruz battle is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
Will the battle between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz come down to the support of their colleagues in Congress? Those colleagues hope so.
An article out today in Politico details how the rise of Ted Cruz in the polls (especially in Iowa) has prompted some prominent members of Congress to start leaning toward Marco Rubio as the preferred candidate of cross-spectrum Republicans. This lean in itself could be construed as a momentary win for Cruz, whose supporters couldn’t care less what Mitch McConnell has to say about much of anything these days, but it could spell trouble in the long run for the firebrand candidate.
The hesitance (and in some cases, outright refusal) to support Ted Cruz springs from a long history of various floor fights and back hall disputes over policies. Now, congressional Republicans are coming out in force against the possibility of a Cruz nomination, not because they agree with him on principle, but because they see Marco Rubio as the candidate who can win over new supporters in numbers that will place the GOP back in the White House.
Mainstream elected Republicans now see Cruz as a bigger threat than Donald Trump or Ben Carson to clinch the nomination — but equally damaging to their party’s chances of winning the White House and keeping the Senate next fall. Rubio would be a much stronger general election standard bearer, they believe.
“Marco is a true next-generation conservative,” said Steve Daines (R-Mont.), one of three senators who endorsed Rubio in November. “Every time there’s a debate, his stock goes up.”
Cruz winning the nomination “could happen with the angry situation we have out there” among the GOP electorate, said one Republican senator who hasn’t endorsed in the race but does not want Cruz.
Rubio’s GOP colleagues are looking to exploit what they see as Rubio’s advantage on national security in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks. They’re heaping praise on Rubio’s hawkish foreign policy views and panning Cruz’s attempt to find middle ground on national security. Asked about Rubio’s attacks on Cruz’s votes for the USA Freedom Act, which scaled back federal surveillance authorities, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas replied: “It’s always fair to question votes and hold people accountable.”
As for Cruz’s attempt to stake out a centrist position on national security between the party’s hawkish and libertarian poles, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said: “I don’t think you can split that baby.”
“Candidates running for national office who are articulating strong, firm, decisive positions that are well-thought-out are going to have an advantage,” said No. 3 Senate Republican John Thune of South Dakota. Rubio, he added, is “well positioned to make the arguments.”
Reactions to this passage will go one of two ways. The first, and most likely, is the The Establishment is Afraid of Ted route—which is true, but not in the way you think.
The second route—and the argument that I believe to be true—is one that recognizes that when it comes to leadership, group dynamic matters. Congressional Republicans are nervous about the possibility of a Ted Cruz candidacy because, from everything they’ve seen, Ted Cruz isn’t worried about how he is perceived by voters not already firmly in the conservative base.
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are two different men. Cruz’s ability to mobilize the base is unparalleled. What he did to David Dewhurst in Texas was one of the most well-run, successful political coups in modern politics. I was working in the Texas House of Representatives at the time, and it was amazing to see Cruz’s message slowly flip even the most seasoned staffers away from Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst; his message was fresh, and down to earth, and his base trusts him because of his fearless adherence to that message; on the flip side, that fearlessness gives pause to those who aren’t already familiar with conservative principles.
That’s the rub here. The Republicans whose views are represented in this article are worried that that pause will turn into either inaction, or turned backs on the part voters who don’t go for the immediate buy-in. They see Rubio as the candidate that those voters will take a second look at, because everything he has done so far suggests that he is begging for those voters to ask questions.
Of course, it’s not just about cloak room relationships; many of the members currently backing (if not endorsing) Rubio have paid careful attention to how his messaging affects their colleagues across the aisle:
But congressional Republicans say the truest indicator of Rubio’s strength is the abuse he’s getting from Democrats. They’ve been pounding him daily over missed votes and briefings, while dissecting his policy plans. Cruz, by comparison, has been getting kid-glove treatment, to the extent Democrats mention him at all in opposition dumps from the party apparatus and outside liberal groups.
Democrats for two years have held up Cruz as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, dubbing him “Speaker Cruz” after he prodded former Speaker John Boehner into a 2013 battle over Obamacare that shut down the federal government. Just this month, Democrats annoyed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by insinuating he had agreed to take up a hard-line immigration bill heavily touted by Cruz. The idea that McConnell would take cues from Cruz after the Texas senator’s withering criticisms of the GOP leader was perceived by Republicans as a subtle Democratic attempt at boosting Cruz.
This isn’t puffery—Democrats are right to be worried about Rubio. Last month, Rubio gained major ground with younger voters who said they found him relatable. This flies directly in the face of the standard Democrat narrative that insists all Republicans are tone deaf old white men with access to family money. Rubio is none of those things, and thus terrifying.
Democrats also know that Marco Rubio is probably the candidate most likely to leverage his relatable nature across multiple platforms. Rubio’s online game is strong not only because his team understands how to market a well-made message, but because the source material has a completely different feel to it. While other candidates have struggled to perfect a sleeve roll, Rubio seems perfectly comfortable talking about pop culture and acting like a normal person (who happens to be running for President, which is not normal by any standard.)
This battle isn’t just a battle between two candidates; it’s a battle between two fierce perspectives on what the point of the 2016 election really is, and what our priorities are. Every cycle is a 10,000 yard stare into the void; what makes this one different is we have two factions of equally devoted conservatives who disagree on what we’d like to see on the other side.
In the case of Rubio v. Cruz, we may find out for the first time just how adept the current congressional delegation is at turning their desires into electoral reality.
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