Guess who the new establishment favorite in the Republican presidential race is, the one the big money guys and the party Brahmins hope will save them? Nope, not Marco Rubio. Not Chris Christie? Sorry. John Kasich? It's none other than Donald Trump.
In a race that has been full of bizarre developments, this must be one of the strangest.
It's not happening because the party has suddenly realized that alienating as many voting blocs as possible is the key to success, or because they've come to understand what a fine fellow Trump is, or because they think he'll win the general election. None of those things are true. It's because even though the race could still change, at the moment it's looking like a contest between Trump and Ted Cruz. And Cruz they cannot abide.
Why is that? First, many believe that Cruz would be destined to not just lose to Hillary Clinton, but lose in spectacular fashion. He has always presented himself as an uncompromising ideologue, and his theory of the election is that rather than appeal to independent voters, the path to victory lies in offering such a rock-ribbed conservative vision that millions of new conservative voters who haven't made it to the polls in earlier years will come out for him. Experienced hands believe the result of that strategy would be a repeat of the 1964 election, when Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater by 23 percentage points and won 486 electoral votes. Even worse, Cruz's extreme brand of conservatism could turn off voters to the whole party. As a Republican lobbyist told The New York Times, "Trump won't do long-lasting damage to the GOP coalition. Cruz will." Or as Bob Dole, who emphasized that he actually very much hoped Jeb Bush would win, said on Wednesday, if Cruz is the nominee, "we're going to have wholesale losses in Congress and state offices and governors and legislatures."
Cruz probably wasn't too upset when he heard that, since it reinforces the idea that he's the scourge of the Washington establishment. Dole may be a respected elder statesman, but he's also a failed presidential candidate who was very conservative in his day but in today's GOP would be considered a RINO (Republican In Name Only), the insult conservatives throw at the squishes in their own party. And that isn't to say there aren't many in the Republican establishment, like William Kristol, who see Trump as the greatest threat. But the movement in his direction is unmistakable.
But wouldn't Trump do just as poorly as Cruz in a general election, if not worse? He well might. On the other hand, Trump could move to the center in the general, since his ideological beliefs are very flexible, to say the least. Whether this would work is another question, but there's at least a possibility that Trump's appeal to blue-collar whites could work in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, which would probably be completely out of reach for Cruz. And there are some who believe that even if Trump loses, he's such a unique character that his fortunes would rub off on Republicans running for down-ballot offices.
Then there's the personal question. Politics makes for not only strange bedfellows but complex webs of alliance, some more temporary than others. If you're in that game, you'll eventually join up with people you don't particularly care for, at least for a while. You can not like them and still cooperate with them, since the stakes can be so high. But Ted Cruz is something different. There's a level of personal loathing for him among those in his own party that I can't recall seeing toward any other major politician. Whether it's his willingness to step on other people in the service of his own ambitions or his general smarminess, Cruz just rubs everyone the wrong way. And by all accounts that's been true in pretty much every arena he's passed through.
Combine the political worries about a Cruz nomination with the personal distaste for him, and you get a party establishment that is feeling like it may have no choice but to support Trump. So major GOP donors who used to turn their noses up at Trump are now writing him checks. As one Republican fundraiser told The Washington Post, "A lot of donors are trying to figure their way into Trump's orbit. There is a growing feeling among many that he may be the guy, so people are certainly seeing if they can find a home over there." Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who ordinarily stays neutral during the caucuses, isn't supporting any particular candidate but is telling everyone not to vote for Cruz. As one reporter described the establishment's thinking, "Should we back the guy who wants to be liked and doesn't really care that much about policy specifics, or should we back the guy who doesn't care what we think and is adamant about getting his way to the point of encouraging a politically futile government shutdown in 2013? Not a tough call."
"He's a nasty guy," says Trump about Cruz. "Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him." And what's Cruz's response? "Right now the Washington establishment is abandoning Marco Rubio, they made an assessment that Marco can't win this race, and the Washington establishment is rushing over to support Donald Trump," he says. And guess what: They're both right.