Texas Sen. Ted Cruz went to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's hometown Wednesday to announce the endorsement of former HP CEO Carly Fiorina. Speaking at Miami-Dade College, just steps from where his rival announced his presidential campaign, Cruz timed the surprise as gut-punch to a flailing rival, not as a tactic to win Florida's 99 delegates, which almost certainly remain out of his reach.
Hurting Rubio is also why Cruz has opened 10 field offices in the state and on the heels of a seven-figure investment from Cruz’s super PAC on Florida airwaves. On its surface, the spending is unremarkable—a fraction of what it takes to make a significant difference in the state—but it flies in the face of the GOP establishment’s best-laid plans to trip-up Donald Trump.
“It’s chess, not checkers,” says one Cruz strategist, surveying what remains of the field. "It's not only about stopping Trump, it's about making Ted Cruz president," said another.
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney laid out the case last week in Utah, encouraging Republicans to vote for the best-positioned Trump alternative in their given state. The goal, argued Romney, was not to elect another candidate, but to simply deny Trump delegates. In Florida, the candidate for achieving that goal is undoubtedly Rubio, the home state senator who sits in second place. “A vote for Cruz is a vote for Donald Trump,” Rubio’s campaign repeated on loop in Florida, as donors and anti-Trump operatives privately fretted on that same concern.
And though he is claiming he’s “competing hard to win Florida,” Cruz is way back in third place, without any real hope of picking up delegates in the winner-take-all state. If many in the anti-Trump movement had their way, Cruz would shift his Sunshine State support to Rubio to bolster the chances of keeping the bombastic front-runner from securing the state, or at least refrain from actively trying to block Rubio's path.
But that’s not the Cruz way.
A deeply strategic thinker with a penchant for taking stiff gambles, Cruz is working to craft an ‘I win, or you lose’ choice for the Republican Party—where after March 15th the GOP establishment that despises him will have to contend with rallying around him, or being stuck with Trump as its standard-bearer. The first step: Cruz needs to push Rubio out of the race—by handing Florida’s delegates to Trump. Every dollar he spends in Florida is going to that goal. It’s a high-stakes wager that could easily backfire, particularly if Trump uses a Florida win to secure a majority of delegates. Cruz’s team believes the potential rewards outweigh the risk.
Cruz aides believe a three person race would swiftly yield a two-person contest, and even in it didn’t, that’ their 300-delegate lead on Ohio Gov. John Kasich would effectively make it one. Kasich faces his own make-or-break moment in Ohio, where he is fighting to deny Trump the Buckeye delegates.
Underpinning the strategy are surveys showing Cruz resoundingly defeats Trump in a two-person race if Trump does not win the nomination outright. Despite the lack of any love lost between himself and the party's leadership in Washington, Cruz believes they will be forced to come around his way to keep their party intact. Cruz’s path to securing 1,237 delegates to the convention for the first ballot is slim. But in forcing the party to choose between himself and Trump, Cruz is already seeing signs that his Sophie’s choice for the GOP establishment will pay off.
In recent weeks, senior Republican figures have starting coming to grips with needing to rally behind Cruz to stop Trump. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who mused openly about shooting Cruz on the Senate floor weeks ago, has capitulated on backing his rival, suggesting a Cruz/Rubio or a Cruz/Kasich ticket—in that order—be formed to stop Trump.
"You know Ted Cruz is not my favorite by any means," said South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham after the March 1 voting. "But we may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump."