Ted Cruz has been accused of telling a lie or two to win an election, but Cruz and his campaign are now pushing a line with Republicans that is actually true: Cruz would probably be less awful for Republicans on the ballot than Donald Trump if they select him as their nominee.
That’s not exactly the argument Cruz made to RNC members at their spring meeting this week, but it’s close. Although Cruz can’t win the 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination before the RNC convention in July, he’s pitching potential delegates on two points—that he’d have a better chance of beating Hillary Clinton in November, and that in the meantime, he will help, not hurt, other Republicans up for election in 2016.
At both the spring meeting, and at statewide conventions around the country, the Cruz operation has been appealing to the very real anxiety of rank-and-file Republicans who worry that Trump could spell disaster for the party in November, despite his dominance in the GOP primary so far. Key among GOP concerns are Trump’s historically high disapproval ratings among women, young people and minorities, his unwillingness (so far) to raise traditional campaign funds, and his murky and ever-changing policy positions.
“I do believe there are some Republicans that feel strongly that they’re not sure where Donald Trump actually stands,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a longtime Republican fundraiser who supported Jeb Bush this cycle. “There have been certain issues that have caused conservatives to question whether Trump is truly a conservative. I don’t think anyone questions Ted Cruz’s conservative bona fides.”
Tanenblatt also pointed to Trump’s controversial past statements as something many Republicans don’t want to deal with in their nominee.
“We have had the experience in the past where we’ve had a candidate who created problems for other candidates around the country with some of the things they’ve said,” Tanenblatt said. “If you have a candidate who is running for president and they say something that is not aligned with the conservative views of others running in the party, it could have an impact.”
Another longtime Republican put it more bluntly.
“Trump is a wildcard and nobody wants their future tied to a wildcard,” said a Republican consultant working with several statewide campaigns in 2016.
Although Trump has argued that he would turn out millions of new voters for Republicans, no recent polls today show that happening. The most glaring sign of trouble for Republican delegates weighing support for Trump or Cruz at a potentially contested convention are multiple polls that not only show Trump losing to Hillary Clinton in key states, but potentially hurting other Republicans on the ticket in the process.
The Elway Poll in Washington State showed a -36 point effect for anyone on the ballot who endorsed Trump, including the state’s four Republican House members. Cruz’s -24 point effect was bad, but at least better than Trump’s.
In North Carolina, the latest PPP poll shows Clinton narrowly beating both Trump and Cruz. But of much more concern to North Carolina Republicans is the fact that 48 percent of voters say they’d be less likely to vote for incumbent Sen. Richard Burr if he endorses Trump, compared to 22 percent who said they’d be more likely to support Burr. The PPP polling memo calls the 26-point hit “a good early indicator of the trouble Trump poses for his party,” and notes that Cruz has an 11-point edge over Trump among Republicans.
Burr is one of seven GOP senators up for re-election this year in states that Barack Obama won in 2008, 2012 or both. In state after state, Trump fares the same or worse than Cruz in a race against Clinton.
In Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson has been trailing former Sen. Russ Feingold, the latest Wisconsin Poll shows Trump losing to Clinton 46-34, but Cruz keeping the race to a one-point margin (PDF). In Arizona, where Sen. John McCain is locked in a dead heat for his Senate seat against Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, the latest Merrill poll shows Trump tied with Clinton, but Cruz ahead by six (PDF).
Even in conservative states like Utah, where a Democrat hasn’t won since LBJ in 1964, Trump would lose by two points to Hillary Clinton, while Cruz would win by 28, according to the most recent Deseret News poll.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, told the Deseret News the Trump numbers should be seen as a canary in a coal mine for Republicans, “Any matchup in which Democrats are competitive in the state of Utah is shocking.”
While some Republicans are divided over the choice between running with Trump or Cruz, Democratic operatives see them both as equally enticing opponents to run against in November.
“I think there is a case to be made that Ted Cruz is a marginally better candidate than Donald Trump all around, but the bar is extremely low,” said Justin Barasky, communications director for Priorities USA, the main super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton. “If Donald Trump is a 1 out of 10, Ted Cruz is a 1.5 out of 10. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
The biggest hole in Cruz’s argument for his own electability is the fact that while it’s true that he would be less of a risk than Trump for Republicans, the same polls that show Cruz’s relative strength over Trump also show Ohio Gov. John Kasich as more electable than both of them in a race against Clinton.
Unlike Cruz and Trump, who are now projected to narrowly lose Ohio in the general, Kasich would win by 17. He would also win New Hampshire, while where Cruz and Trump both have a 21 percent approval rating with general election voters.
And therein lies the fundamental problem for the Republican Party. The man with the most Republican votes for president could kill the party in November, while the one poised to do best in November has been mostly rejected by his own party.
Somewhere in the middle is an argument for Ted Cruz to be the Republican nominee in 2016. His campaign is reminding Republicans that he’s conservative, he’ll raise money for them, he won’t embarrass them in the press, and at least he’ll win Utah. At the moment, Donald Trump can’t promise any of those things.