Opinion

Why Ted Cruz failed to carry the #NeverTrump banner

Reflections on the Texas senator's humiliating performance in the Acela primaries

Ted Cruz was humiliated on Tuesday.

Donald Trump beat Cruz by 40 points in Connecticut, 45 in Delaware, 36 in Maryland, 35 in Pennsylvania, and 53 in Rhode Island. Even John Kasich beat Cruz in four of those states. Shellackings don't come much bigger than this.

Why did anyone ever think that Cruz could carry the weight of the #NeverTrump cause?

Now, it's true that even after Trump's impressive sweep of five Northeastern states on Tuesday, he's still nearly 300 pledged delegates short of the 1,237 he'll need to clinch the nomination. Cruz still has a mathematical chance to stop Trump if he can pull out all the stops in Indiana, and if he and Kasich can pick off enough wins across Congressional districts in California on June 7.

But don't bet on it. Cruz lost his realistic shot at the nomination when he lost the states of the old Confederacy to Trump in early March. Cruz needed to combine the South with his states in the high plains and the Mormon West. If he'd done that, he not only would have been much closer to the nomination, he would also have the moral argument that he was the unanimous choice of the Republican wing of the Republican Party. But Trump's "New York values" played better in Mississippi than Cruz's man of God act.

The #NeverTrump movement may have been launched by sincere-hearted conservatives who fear that a populist demagogue, beloved by a minority faction, would sink the party in November. But it was inevitable that Cruz and Kasich would lose momentum once it became obvious that neither could win the nomination outright. #NeverTrump wasn't inviting voters to an exciting, come-from-behind victory parade. It was inviting voters to play spoiler. And to do so they'd have to vote for either Cruz or Kasich, each of whom gives the impression that in another age they'd have been failed card-sharps.

Cruz's pathetic showing in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic is emblematic of a larger problem in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Republicans don't show up in major cities until Democratic corruption reaches criminal levels. Sometimes, not even then. The GOP is at home in the parts of the country with fewer people in them. It can put together a rock-solid electorate for the House and Senate. Red only looks good on the national electoral map because, well, there's a great deal of empty space between Republican voters on it. But American cities are still growing, and rural America is still shrinking. Trump rolled to easy victory in these Northeastern states precisely because he is not a conservative Republican.

Cruz ran a smart and capable campaign. He had good ads, excellent turnout operations, and attracted a few deep-pocketed backers. But his most realistic hope to win the nomination was to be the last "conservative" against a pair of more conventionally moderate candidates — say, Kasich and Jeb Bush.

Cruz's strategy for outlasting Trump and beating him was almost avowedly shifty and disingenuous. While Trump was turning his fire at more plausible general election candidates like Bush and Marco Rubio, Cruz was forswearing any attacks on Trump. He believed that Trump's voters would warm up to him. Cruz gave Trump a bear hug. And Cruz said that it was the establishment that wanted the two of them in a cage match.

In fact, a cage match between Trump and Cruz is exactly what we got. Is the establishment happy? Not so much.

Trump and Cruz are far and away the two leading vote-getters in the Republican Party at a very late stage in the contest. Cruz has been endorsed by just three Senate colleagues. Trump has been endorsed by just one senator. Cruz has the endorsement of five governors. Trump has three.

It's as if the elected Republican Party stopped caring about the outcome of this race weeks ago.

When the history is written, it will be said that Cruz helped legitimate Trump in the Republican race. And his admiring tone for Trump came off as not just cowardly, but submissive. All of the accolades for Cruz's intellect and Ivy League debate skills didn't matter. Trump unmanned Cruz long before the results came in. "I'm, like, a very smart person," Trump said Tuesday night. Well, smart enough.

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