Sen. Ted Cruz is right: He is the most successful Republican this year not named Donald Trump. After Super Tuesday, he has won four GOP contests, including the primary in his delegate-rich home state, Texas. Marco Rubio has won just one contest, the Minnesota caucus, and John Kasich has won bupkis.
The Republican nomination race has been a three-man fight for at least two weeks now, since Jeb Bush threw in the towel, and in his Texas-Oklahoma victory speech, Cruz asked his remaining non-Trump rivals — meaning Rubio, mostly — to "prayerfully consider" leaving him to fight Trump mano a mano. He repeated his formula — true when he said it — that he is the only candidate who has beaten Trump so far.
The online betting markets seemed to buy the argument. On the New Zealand–based site PredictIt, Cruz's chances of winning the GOP nomination rose to a high of 10 percent Wednesday morning, putting him even with Rubio, who fell 1 point (Trump was the odds-on favorite, at 76 percent). The Irish betting site Paddy Power put Cruz's odds of winning at an improved 12-to-1, versus 5-to-1 for Rubio and 1-to-7 for Trump. Those numbers will probably move in Cruz's favor, at Rubio's expense, as the Super Tuesday results are digested.
More importantly, establishment Republicans seem to be warming up, if warily, to the idea of Cruz as their last best hope of stopping the Trump juggernaut. "Ted Cruz is not my favorite by any means," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview with CBS News late Tuesday night. "But we may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump."
In this case, the medicine may be worse than the malady.
Donald Trump is very likely going to be the Republican nominee, and nobody knows what that will look like in a general election match-up against Hillary Clinton, the probable Democratic nominee. It's a good bet that once he has the Republican nomination sewn up, Trump will execute his own version of what just about every nominees does: Moderate his message for a general electorate. He might be able to pull it off, too, because he's shameless and a very good showman.
The first warning bell for Republicans if they rally behind Cruz is that he probably wouldn't moderate his "consistent conservative" pitch very much. Purity is his core brand, and he's too invested in it to let it go. That might show more integrity than Trump's ideological flexibility, but it isn't a great recipe for winning over suburban soccer moms, say, or moderate independents.
The second red flag is where Ted Cruz has won, and where he hasn't. Oklahoma? Mitt Romney won 67 percent of the vote there in the 2012 election. John McCain and George W. Bush won 66 percent in 2008 and 2004, respectively. Texas went for Romney 57 percent to 41 percent. Any Republican is going to win those two states in November. Iowa is a legitimate swing state, but Cruz had to practically live in the state for months to pull off a narrow victory over Trump in the GOP caucus. He wouldn't expend the same time or energy again for seven electoral votes.
Rubio, on the other hand, crushed his rivals in the Minnesota caucus, nearly beat Trump in the Virginia primary, and slid by Cruz for second place in Nevada. Those are the type of swing states that will decide the next election. Rubio won only one of them, but he has consistently performed more strongly than Cruz in states Republicans need to put on the table in November. Trump is winning in all kinds of states: red, blue, and purple.
The last thing #NeverTrump Republicans might want to consider before throwing what weight they have behind Cruz is a factor that's less tangible and quantifiable but probably equally important: He's not very likable. None of his Senate colleagues have endorsed him or seem to like him. Cruz can wear that as a badge of his anti-"Washington dealmaker" piety, but at some point it just comes across as antisocial. I don't know Cruz, and I'm sure his friends and family enjoy his company, but as a public figure, he flunks the "would you want to have a beer with him?" test.
Cruz knows that. "If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy," he said at a Republican debate in November. "But if you want someone to drive you home, I'll get the job done." Maybe voters want a sober designated driver, but so far they seem to be going with the rich guy in the flashy sports car.
Donald Trump says a lot of outrageous things, but he pulls it off because he is also somehow personable. Would I vote for Trump? No. Would I have a beer with him? If he was buying, probably. Comedian John Oliver, before clinically dissecting Trump for 20 minutes, acknowledged on his show Sunday that "there is a part of me that even likes this guy. It's a part I hate, but it is a part of me."
There is something comforting in the idea of a Cruz-Clinton matchup, or even a Rubio-Clinton race. The arguments and parameters are predictable, and the electorate would know more or less where each candidate stands. Trump is shrewdly charting his own course, and that's thrown the whole race into uncharted territory. This may well be his core appeal, and it may also be the Republican Party's undoing.
It makes sense that Republican leaders want to neutralize the Trump threat. It's not clear they will be able to — Republican voters get the final say, as they should. But if they do settle on one anti-Trump to champion, they pick Ted Cruz at their own peril. If the voters reject the other Trump alternatives, Rubio and Kasich, it might be safer for the GOP elite to bet it all on orange: Donald Trump may be a wild card, but Ted Cruz is a joker.