Republican Establishment Weighs the Devil They Know

8 minute read

On Wednesday, Idaho Senator Jim Risch became the third Senator to endorse his colleague Ted Cruz for the GOP nomination — sort of. Risch was on CNN saying Cruz is the best of the bunch. Host Wolf Blitzer asked if that was an endorsement.

Risch looked taken aback. “Did I just endorse, Wolf?” he said.

“You sort of said you prefer him over the two,” Blitzer replied. “That sounds like an endorsement, doesn’t it?”

“I guess,” Risch said. “It depends on your definition.”

That comes on top of Senator Lindsey Graham’s begrudging pick of Cruz over Donald Trump, something he likened to the choice “between being shot or poisoned.” The only person to actually endorse with positive words has been Utah’s Mike Lee and that was only after Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for whom he’d also campaigned, dropped out of the race.

The Washington Establishment isn’t exactly racing the endorse Cruz — even as he represents the last best hope at stopping Trump. For many Senators, Cruz is the devil they know and Trump is the devil they don’t. The Senate is split, most write off the White House with either a Trump or Cruz nomination but many worry about the down ballot damage Trump would do and there are many steps left between now and the convention before anything is totally clear.

Depriving Trump of the nomination could be difficult, barring a Lindsey Lohan–esque descent into incredulity that would lose him all but his most ardent of fans (not out of the realm of possibility given the past two weeks). Texas Senator John Cornyn warned a group of Republican Senators a few weeks ago that “voters are upset” and if the Establishment is seen “undercutting their will, that could be a powder keg.” Members of Congress are keenly aware that approval of their branch of the government remains near all-time lows and they don’t want to be seen subverting the will of the people, even if it means allowing Trump to snag the nomination.

The question is, which one would do less lasting damage? Many Establishment Republicans express concerns like Graham’s about Trump’s down-ballot effects. Some political prognosticators have even predicted that a Trump nomination might even throw the House into play, so deep is his unpopularity with groups like women, Hispanics and African Americans.

For many, the choice is the lesser of two evils: go with Trump and you avoid the short-term drama of splitting the party, as Cornyn warned. Trump himself predicted riots should he be denied the nomination. But that short-term gain might not be worth much if Trump puts off a generation of female and minority voters, essentially denying the party the White House for years to come. Cruz would give the party a Goldwater moment, still an expected crushing loss, but one that might help bring the Tea Party back into the fold by 2020. The problem is, Cruz leaves his colleagues with such a bitter taste in their mouths.

Hillary Clinton and Cruz took opposite approaches to their Senate careers. Clinton came already famous and politely sat on the backbench, deferring to her seniors and working doggedly behind the scenes to build relationships. That has yielded her the endorsement of 469 so-called superdelegates — mostly elected officials — including the vast majority of her Democratic Senate colleagues.

Cruz, meanwhile, came in as the bomb-throwing Tea Partier and seemed from the outset more determined to make enemies than friends. Many Senators accused him of shutting down the government in 2013 for his own aggrandizement at the expense of the institution. “I call it ‘the Cruz effect,’” former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican who retired in 2014 after 20 years in the Senate, told Sirius XM in October. “When you tell people you can accomplish something that you can’t — for example, shutting down the government over the Affordable Care Act.”

Arkansas’ John Boozman, who’s usually fairly mild-mannered, was receiving so many phone calls form outraged conservatives — activists directly incited by Cruz — that one of his young receptionists broke down into tears. Boozman took Cruz to task at a conference lunch that week, calling him a “bully” and telling him to “stop bullying me and stop bullying my staff.”

In February of 2014, Cruz forced a roll-call vote on raising the debt ceiling, compelling his party’s leaders — two of whom were facing primary opponents — to vote for the controversial measure, earning him no friends with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and No. 2 Cornyn, his fellow Texan. Cornyn this week said he would not be endorsing anyone in the presidential primary. “I don’t think voters particularly care about senatorial endorsements,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I’ll support the nominee, but I won’t be endorsing at all.”

Turnabout is fair play. Cruz also pointedly refused to endorse Cornyn ahead of his Texas 2014 primary, as well as a host of other Senate colleagues looking for support in fending off Tea Party challenges, despite being named vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the Senate.

In July 2015, Cruz tangled with McConnell again, calling the majority leader a “liar” on the Senate floor for allowing a vote to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. McConnell has also declined to endorse in the primary and has largely stayed away from commenting on presidential politics, though behind the scenes McConnell sent word to the GOP lobbying class that they support Cruz at their peril.

In September 2015, when Cruz called on his fellow Senators to partially shut down the government again to stop funding for Planned Parenthood, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte fired off a public letter off to Cruz.

“Given the challenges and threats we face at home and abroad, I oppose risking a government shutdown, particularly when it appears there is no chance of achieving a successful result,” Ayotte wrote. “During the last government shutdown, I repeatedly asked you what your strategy for success was when we did not have the votes to achieve the goal of defunding Obamacare, but I did not receive an answer.”

Ayotte stood up in a what aides describe as a particularly “nasty” conference meeting at the time and upbraided Cruz for his folly. This week Ayotte said she is focused on winning her tough re-election and will not be endorsing in the presidential election. She said Cruz has not reached out for her support.

Even Cruz’s best friend in the Senate, Utah’s Mike Lee, has had trouble stomaching him. In October, Cruz sat next to Lee in the Judiciary Committee as Lee urged his colleagues to vote for a criminal-justice bill he’d laboriously co-authored. Lee hadn’t known what to expect from Cruz, who’d been largely absent on the campaign tail. But judging by his floored facial expression caught on C-SPAN, he certainly didn’t expect what happened next. Cruz proceeded to come out against the bill, leaving Lee sputtering and the legislation essentially knee-capped.

Things got so bad that in January, Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican Senator up for re-election, reportedly told attendees at a private fundraiser that he’d rather vote for Bernie Sanders, the self-described Vermont socialist challenging Hillary Clinton from the left, than Cruz. Burr denied the story and now says he’ll support the nominee, whomever that may be, though he has declined to make an endorsement in the race.

When asked if Cruz these days rues burning so many bridges in the Senate, Graham chuckles: “I think all of us can learn that what you do today could follow you tomorrow. So I don’t think it’s beyond repair. If I can work with Ted Cruz, I think others can. We have more in common than differences. Did I appreciate his strategy of shutting down the government to repeal Obamacare? No. Did I think that it would work? No. But having said that I think he would appoint reliably conservative judges, he won’t throw Israel under the bus and we have a lot more in common than separates us.”

For Graham, Cruz is “the most viable alternative to Trump and he’s got the most logical argument.” Graham argues that Trump is not a true conservative and his nomination would be “an electoral disaster. I think he’d change the brand of the party and as many differences as I have with Ted Cruz, which are real, they pale in comparison with the differences I have with Donald Trump.”

That said, is anyone doing much outreach to the Senators or House members? Graham wasn’t aware of much. Cruz himself is realistic: he often jokes on the campaign trail that he should probably have a taste tester when eating in the Senate dining room. His colleagues may not want to see him dead, but they aren’t terribly keen to seen him as their nominee, let alone President.

— With reporting by Phil Elliott / Washington, D.C.

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