Can Cruz Conquer Trump?

The Texas senator aims to be both a compromise candidate and a conservative.

In an essay at Politico, Jack Shafer calls our attention to the rowdiest brokered convention in American history. When the Democrats arrived at Madison Square Garden in 1924, they were riven between North and South, pro- and anti-Ku Klux Klan, Wets and Drys on Prohibition, all of which manifested itself into two frontrunners, William McAdoo and Al Smith, who were wholly unacceptable to the other’s supporters. It took 103 ballots to settle on a compromise candidate, lawyer John W. Davis, who was promptly steamrolled in the general election by President Calvin Coolidge.

Today, there’s another attorney hoping to preside over a shotgun marriage in a wild election year: Senator Ted Cruz. He’s not aiming for a brokered convention, of course, and he’d presumably like to avoid getting crushed by Hillary Clinton. But Cruz is seeking to present himself as an acceptable compromise to two seemingly incompatible factions—the populists and establishment of the GOP, who support Donald Trump and Marco Rubio respectively—while bringing along his own base of Tea Party conservatives.

It seems to be working. Last Saturday, for the first time ever, Cruz won more delegates than Trump did. For that, he was delicately praised by no less a Republican elite than Senator Lindsey Graham. Then came last night’s Lesser Tuesday contests. While Trump once again netted the most delegates, there was good news for Cruz, too. In Michigan, Cruz narrowly edged out John Kasich for second place despite spending no money. In Idaho, he routed Trump by 17 points, making it the third consecutive election day when he’s won a state. Only in Mississippi was there a stumble; Trump grabbed almost half the Magnolia State vote, and Cruz failed to win his putative base of evangelical voters, a trend that’s haunted him since South Carolina. It may be that Cruz’s anti-government message is finding more resonance in the West than the South.

We’re quickly reaching the point where Cruz needs to start standing on his own, especially now that Marco Rubio is imploding like a Type II supernova. The Florida senator had an abysmal night. He won 5 percent of the vote in Mississippi and 9 percent in Michigan. In three out of the four contests, he failed to qualify for a single voter-assigned delegate. A speculative rumor that he might log his third first-place finish in Hawaii proved unfounded, as he was beaten there by both Trump and Cruz. The operative question for weeks has been whether Rubio will drop out after Florida; the operative question now is whether he’ll even limp that far.

The problem is that even if he doesn’t, Cruz may find he isn’t the only one scavenging for Rubio’s scraps. Last night, John Kasich also seemed to benefit from the Florida senator’s decline, nearly tying Cruz for second in Michigan and scoring twice the voter share in Mississippi that he won in Alabama. If Kasich can win Ohio next week (which is distantly possible) and Rubio loses Florida to Trump (which is likely), then the Republican race could be right back where it started, with another feeble establishment candidate grabbing Cruz’s shirt while Trump jogs easily ahead. When the billionaire grasped the podium last night to mount a rousing defense of his bottled water company and declare himself “more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln,” among other ridiculous nonsense, his confidence wasn’t misplaced.

There was also a surprise on the Democratic side, where Bernie Sanders narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in Michigan. It was a symbolic victory for Sanders—from the auto industry of yesterday to the filthy water of today, liberal activists have long found grist in the L.P. of Michigan—but it wasn’t the turning point that many in the media are trumpeting. Clinton took home a win in Mississippi, continues to have an insuperable advantage with African Americans and leads among the Democratic Party’s notably undemocratic superdelegates. Even in this turbulent election year, some things are staying the same.

Matt Purple is the deputy editor of Rare Politics.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.