Right-Wing Unity Bid Is Feeding Cruz Surge

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Republican Candidates Attend Heritage Action Candidate Forum
It's probably not a coincidence that a secret group of conservative leaders recently decided to get behind Ted Cruz just as his stock rose in Iowa and nationally. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

National Review’s Tim Alberta has given us all a peek behind the veil of a much-rumored process in which a cabal of conservative leaders — with especially heavy representation from old-line Christian-right groups, and informally headed up by the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins — has worked to unify around a single Republican presidential candidates. Turns out the group — which in fact referred to itself as “the GROUP” — has been struggling to reach a self-imposed 75 percent supermajority threshold for agreement on a single candidate. Coincidentally or not, Ted Cruz finally achieved that threshold in a meeting during the first week of December, right before the Texan began surging in polls in Iowa and nationally. What was perhaps most surprising was the identity of the second-place finisher who for a while blocked Cruz’s supermajority: Marco Rubio.

Here’s Alberta on how the field shook out:

It didn’t take long for the participants to winnow down their list. They eliminated the weaker contenders: Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson among them. This facilitated the Cruz-Rubio duel many had been anticipating: Cruz, the Protestant purist with a pit bull’s demeanor, versus Rubio, the Catholic pragmatist with a choirboy’s countenance. Or, as one member framed it: “Cruz the Fighter versus Rubio the Communicator.”

Finally, on a fifth ballot in the latest meeting, Cruz got his 75 percent. This does not commit each member of the GROUP to a Cruz endorsement, but it does, by pre-agreement, mean they are not supposed to endorse anyone else. 

What this whole exercise represents is the long-standing belief of conservative activists that their inability to unite on a single candidate has kept them from blocking moderate nominees like John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Certainly in 2008 McCain managed, Mr. Magoo–like, to negotiate a demolition derby wherein Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney (then running as a movement conservative candidate) kept each other from winning in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. And in 2012, some still believe, had Rick Perry (an early contender), Newt Gingrich (who beat Romney in South Carolina), and Rick Santorum (who won an assortment of primaries and caucuses) managed to combine forces, the outcome might have been very different.

This time around, the GROUP was convened to avoid another RINO nomination. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Cruz endorsement: The probable original target of all the scheming, early invisible-primary front-runner Jeb Bush, is struggling to survive past Iowa. Other party “moderates” like John Kasich and Chris Christie are not doing very well, either. And still another candidate that some of the Christian-right warhorses disliked because he combined a subtle appeal to conservative Evangelicals with a refusal to campaign on “their” issues, Scott Walker, dropped out.  

It says a lot that the current Establishment favorite in the GOP is Marco Rubio, considered a hard-core tea-party conservative until his close association with a comprehensive immigration bill (since emphatically repudiated). It’s no fluke that he wound up being the second choice of the GROUP. Its real utility is as a unity weapon not against some Establishment moderate, but against Donald Trump. 

And thus, ironically, the GROUP could wind up saving the bacon of its RINO-squish enemies as the one force in the GOP with the means and the motive to stop Trump. The price they could extract for this critical service could simply be a renewal of the blood pact that commits the GOP to the recriminalization of abortion (and now stealthier and less feasible efforts to reverse marriage equality) by any means necessary. Or it could be Ted Cruz as the presidential nominee. Either way, the hope of these perpetually frustrated reactionaries to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world has been vindicated for at least one more cycle.