WASHINGTON – Republicans in the U.S. Senate are confronting an unsettling possibility: Sen. Ted Cruz, their least favorite colleague, stands within reach of becoming the party’s presidential nominee and standard-bearer.
Worse than that, many Republican lawmakers and aides fear the Texas senator could ruin Republicans’ chances of hanging onto control of the Senate in November’s elections, alienating voters in a half-dozen key swing states with his hard-line stances on issues from immigration to abortion.
And yet, these fellow Republicans say they’re essentially powerless to stop him. Any attempt to weaken Cruz in his primary campaign against Donald Trump and other Republican candidates risks bolstering his argument that he’s running against the “Washington cartel.” So there’s little Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans can do beyond watch in dismay as Cruz, isolated and boxed out in the clubby Senate after repeatedly angering colleagues, rises in the polls in first-voting Iowa and elsewhere.
With Cruz as the Republican nominee, “state and local races that take place in ideologically moderate electorates could be a bloodbath,” says Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff and a Republican strategist. Vulnerable Republican senators are partly insulated by strong campaign organizations, “but there is no question their job could get tougher,” Holmes says.
Cruz has attempted to make a virtue of his rejection by the Washington establishment, and his allies say he will actually help fellow Republicans by energizing the base and turning out evangelicals and others.
One of his favorite lines on the stump is quoting a newspaper article that, according to him, said, “Cruz can’t win because the Washington elites despise him.”
“I kinda thought that was the whole point of the campaign,” Cruz says, almost always generating applause.
On paper at least, Cruz would not seem an obvious anti-establishment figure. He attended elite universities, was a national collegiate debating champion and served as a law clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court chief justice. His wife works as an executive at Goldman Sachs.
But in the Senate, Cruz has alienated fellow Republican senators on so many occasions they are hard to count. And now, with Democrats optimistic they might win the five seats needed to retake control of the Senate — four if they keep the White House — Republicans are desperate to protect vulnerable incumbents in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire, where a Cruz candidacy could turn off independents.
Some Republican lawmakers and pollsters view Cruz as more problematic than businessman Trump, since Trump might have more cross-over appeal to independents. Polling shown to Republicans in the House of Representatives recently identified Cruz as the most difficult presidential nominee for any of them to share a ballot with.
On the Democratic side, former Sen. Hillary Clinton is facing an unexpectedly tough challenge from liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The negative reactions started shortly after Cruz arrived in the Senate in 2013. During a confirmation hearing for former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, Cruz implied, without offering evidence, that Hagel had received compensation from North Korea.
Last year, in a dramatic breach of decorum, Cruz delivered a floor speech in which he accused McConnell of lying about scheduling a vote on the federal Export-Import Bank. Senate leaders were livid and went so far as to block Cruz’s routine request for a roll-call vote, something all but unheard-of.
Rep. Pete King, who represents an evenly divided district in New York state, dismissed Cruz as a “fraud” and said, “I don’t know of anyone else in Washington, certainly, who gets this opposition from his own people. … I’m talking about people as conservative as he is who just can’t stand him.”