The conservative Republicans who make up what is now considered the “establishment” are not a happy lot at present. The Party that nominated George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney wants nothing to do with either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. The fact that Trump and Cruz lead in all of the polls demonstrates how much of a disconnect exists between the GOP and its voting public.
The voters, in both parties really, are frustrated, worried about the future, and therefore angry. Trump and Cruz represent that anger. They are the two candidates best equipped to symbolize the emotion and frustration of Republican voters, partly because Trump/Cruz are so far removed from what voters conceptualize as the party “establishment.” It also helps explain why Jeb Bush is so reviled by primary voters; he is virtually the textbook definition of party establishment.
But, the fact remains that both Trump and Cruz figure to be truly horrible general election candidates. Either of them brings with them the prospect of huge losses for the party in November, up and down the ballot.
So, what to do? Here’s what they’re up to. (I think.)
Cruz is the bigger threat. He’s too extreme to win a general election, he’s unwilling to compromise or negotiate, he has alienated most Republicans in government, and has almost no appeal whatsoever to non-conservatives. And he is the more immediate threat, because he has been polling strongly in the first contested state, Iowa, where he has inherited the evangelical following of Mike Huckabee from 2008 and Rick Santorum from 2012. [Let’s not forget that Iowa Republicans usually get it wrong.]
So, many Republicans figure, he has to go. From Bob Dole to Sara Palin to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, and a number of conservative pundits, there is a concerted effort to quash Cruz. Electability has much to do with it, as many in the party just can’t see a way Ted Cruz can appeal to enough voters to win in the fall.
And Iowa is a must-win state for Cruz. If he loses there, he will surely lose in New Hampshire, where he is far behind Trump in the polls, and he would not likely be able to stage a comeback in South Carolina or Georgia, where he is also behind in the polls. So if Cruz loses Iowa, he’s likely finished. And that’s the end of Part 1.
What’s Part 2? Why, quashing Trump, of course. If Trump wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, it will be historic. And it will be tempting to anoint him the nominee at that point, as an unstoppable phenomenon. However, the Republican establishment will have one final opportunity. With Cruz out of the way, or at least a falling star, another challenger could rise to battle Trump on Super Tuesday and then beyond into the midwestern and northeastern primary contests.
For example, if Rubio does well enough in New Hampshire, he could have enough momentum and money to make one final run at Trump. And the party establishment will likely coalesce around him. Chris Christie should be out after New Hampshire. Unless Bush does much better there than the polls currently indicate, he will find himself under great pressure to drop out. But who knows if he will? The complicating factor in all of this is John Kasich. A strong showing by him in New Hampshire could slow Rubio and give Trump more breathing room.
But if Rubio, or possibly even Kasich or Bush, emerges from the wreckage and heads into Super Tuesday a viable challenger to Trump, that candidate will have significant support. And by then, much of the Republican establishment will be in full “Trump is a disaster” mode. If it works against Cruz, it could very well work against Trump. If it comes down to a two-way race between Trump and an establishment-backed candidate (probably Rubio), it could go all the way to the convention.
Admittedly, this is pure speculation. It might well be that Trump really is an unstoppable force, and Republicans will have to hold their noses and embrace him. We’ll know in about a month.