Like the hardened political professional he proved himself to be in 2016, Ted Cruz suspended his campaign after badly losing the must-win Indiana primary. Thus, he spared himself and his supporters the agony of trying to “contest” a convention wired for Trump and also spared Establishment Republicans the pain of finally choosing between two candidates they hated.
When Cruz first started making noise about running for president, it was generally assumed he was just testing the waters. He was, after all, a freshman senator in his early 40s. But even as he was beginning to show up in the early nomination contest states, he was emerging in Washington as the nemesis of both Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner at a time when the GOP rank-and-file needed little persuasion to believe their congressional leaders were surrendering unnecessarily to Barack Obama. It quickly transpired that Cruz was perfectly positioned in the Year of the Outsider as a movement conservative with just enough Washington experience (and mendacious audacity) to become an effective gadfly.
Cruz soon showed his campaign chops in Iowa, where he quickly out-organized and out-money-hustled early front-runner Scott Walker and occupied the precise position that past caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum (both back in the field this year) held when they won. When he upset Trump in Iowa on the wings of a superior field operation, it looked for all the world like Cruz might soon be engaged in a post-Trump one-on-one competition with Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or some other presumptive RINO whom the Texan could lash as heir to the failed candidacies of McCain and Romney.
But Cruz then suffered what might have been a candidacy-ending stumble. His campaign strategy depended heavily on sweeping the so-called “SEC Primary” segment of the March 1 Super Tuesday contests in states with heavily conservative Evangelical electorates, southern-fried counterparts to Iowa. Instead, he lost to Trump in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Virginia (he later lost to Trump in Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina as well), saving himself from oblivion with wins in Oklahoma and his native Texas. He managed to survive via field-driven wins in a series of midwestern and western caucuses (plus Maine!), watching the field continue to winnow until he was generally acknowledged as the final viable alternative to Trump after a breakthrough victory in Wisconsin.
Cruz navigated this treacherous track first by hewing close to Trump ideologically and politically, and then by inheriting and channeling all the anti-Trump fury of the conservative movement and party Establishments. He came breathtakingly close to making himself the candidate of the very forces in the party that loathed him such as John Boehner, who called him “Lucifer in the flesh.” But in the end, he lacked the popular touch and strategic genius necessary to stop Trump.
That leaves Cruz, however, in an enviable position. He will presumably endorse Trump at some point in the very near future, even as he reconfirms himself as first and foremost a movement conservative. Assuming Trump loses, he can sadly shake his head and muse about the votes he would not have lost. He can tout himself as the most successful movement-conservative rival to failed RINOs McCain, Romney — and Trump. Unlike Marco Rubio, he’ll still be in the Senate. Unlike other rising Republicans, he can plausibly advertise himself as a bridge between Trump supporters and the rest of the party.
And in the unlikely event Donald Trump wins in November, Ted Cruz will still be well-positioned to thrive. Without question, the first step a President-elect Trump will take is to placate conservative activists by replacing Merrick Garland in the queue to the Supreme Court with a young constitutional conservative sure to fight to overturn Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges and bring back absolute property rights as central to American jurisprudence. Why not Justice Ted Cruz?