Coming off of a strong first place victory in Iowa, Ted Cruz did better than expected in New Hampshire, edging Jeb Bush out for a third place finish. This makes Cruz the only non-Trump candidate to earn a top three finish in both Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s an impressive feat when you consider that over two-thirds of Republicans are staunchly “anybody but Trump” in their political alignment.
Looking at the results and Cruz’s history, if he’s is good at one thing, it’s pandering. I know—from personal experience—that his staunchest supporters will lunge at me with rhetorical pitchforks for making this point about their favorite “courageous conservative.” But as a Texan who has followed Cruz closely since 2011 when I was an early supporter of his senate race, I’ve seen the ever-changing pandering magic in action.
Cruz has a way of reading the populist tea leaves, and adjusting accordingly. Abandoning his uber-establishment pedigree for greener grassroots pastures when he saw an opening against his senate primary opponent Texas Lt. Gov David Dewhurst, Cruz has since fashioned himself as a voice for the masses of disaffected and unheard conservatives.
“Make DC listen” became a rallying cry of a Ted Cruz who engaged in a series of senate speeches excoriating the Republicans who ignore their conservative base. The truth is, Cruz has a point. But he has, much to my dismay yet quite skillfully, moved his own allegedly pro-liberty goalposts with the populist winds. To his credit, it’s a strategy that seems to be paying off.
Cruz has staked out a position as the intelligent populist; a viable alternative to the outsider shtick Donald Trump has embraced, but with a more intellectual and cogent approach. This has included pandering to Trump’s supporters more than many conservatives are comfortable with. It has also included pandering to libertarians—a redux of the coalition he built to win his senate race in this now post-Rand Paul presidential primary.
When I was more optimistic about Cruz, approximately four years ago as Romney shored up the nomination, I wrote a piece at The Daily Caller titled, Ted Cruz Can Unite The Right. I argued that:
“In the wake of a divisive GOP presidential primary, the right desperately needs a uniter — someone who, in the mold of Ronald Reagan, can bring together the entire conservative movement. Although most Republicans now support Mitt Romney, he’s not the kind of figure who’s likely to inspire the grassroots right.
However, there is a rising conservative star who has managed to pull support from every corner of the American right. That man is Ted Cruz, and as you may have heard, he’s running an insurgent campaign for U.S. Senate in Texas.”
Yet credit is due, because he has managed to unite the right in much the same way I predicted; I just didn’t anticipate Donald Trump poisoning our movement the way he has. Though I wished Cruz would’ve gone on the offense against Trump sooner, there may be merit to the argument that his timing was right.
Once Rand Paul suspended his campaign, Cruz also wasted no time seeking the support of his libertarian leaning voters in New Hampshire—and those votes very well might have been the key to his strong finish, just as they were a major part of his senate coalition. Given the reactions I’ve seen to Paul’s departure, it wouldn’t surprise me if a good portion of his base opted out of the New Hampshire primary entirely (though Paul did receive 1 percent of the vote even as a non-candidate). But for the Paul supporters focused on pragmatic politics, Cruz no doubt earned much of their support.
Paul’s New Hampshire state chairman State Sen. Kevin Avard endorsed Cruz, and a chunk of his supporters seem to have followed. As The Washington Examiner reported, “Leah Wolczko, a libertarian from Goffstown, wanted to vote for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, but switched her allegiance to Cruz after Paul quit.”
Said Wolczko, “I would be ecstatic if (Cruz) took second place because he would believe and transport the message that the libertarians helped make that happen and he would carry those pieces of our message where we overlap with him.” She’s not the only libertarian engaged in that type of thinking.
Ultimately, there’s an argument to be made that at this point Cruz is the only Republican who can stop Trump. If so, there could be an uphill battle for the GOP in a general election. To date, Cruz has proven that he’s adept at populist pandering aimed at the right-wing. But he’s shown no signs of working to court swing voters.
At this point, given under-performances by both Rubio and Bush, plus Kasich’s lack of a campaign anywhere but New Hampshire, Cruz may be the Republican’s best shot at stopping Trump. But there’s little case for him being the GOP’s best path to the White House. The electability argument has so far been owned by Rubio (though maybe not anymore).
Where this leaves the GOP moving forward is anyone’s guess.