For Marco Rubio and John Kasich, the current anti-Trump cabal whereby every surviving candidate takes on the Donald in different states via a division of labor that involves tactical cooperation is a no-brainer. Both of these dudes face possible extinction in winner-take-all home-state primaries on March 15 in which they’ll need every anti-Trump vote. More fundamentally, they are in third and fourth place in total delegates. Rubio, in particular, is no longer in a position to insist on consolidation of non-Trump voters under his banner. But for Ted Cruz, the cabal forces a tough decision. He’s not in a position to stop Trump on his own. But if he cooperates with Rubio and Kasich and a Republican Establishment that despises him nearly as much as it does Trump, he could be enabling his own demise down the road and thwarting his own efforts to seize the party for the more militant elements of the conservative movement.
At the moment, Team Cruz is focused on the short-term challenge of winning in three states that vote tomorrow: Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana. The first two are closed caucuses with long-passed cutoffs for reregistration to change party affiliation — probably the least hospitable environment for Donald Trump’s campaign. And Louisiana is a closed primary in a state where Cruz has been running a relatively strong second to Trump in the polls. If the mauling of Trump in the Fox News debate in Detroit Thursday night produced lasting damage to his candidacy, it should begin to show up in these states.
But assuming March 6 goes well for Cruz, the strategic dilemmas begin. Sure, he’ll go for the gold in Mississippi and Idaho on March 8. But does he take a dive the same day in Michigan, where he’s been running even with Rubio and well ahead of Kasich? And does he entirely pull his campaign out of Florida and Ohio on March 15 to maximize the home-state cabal boys’ odds of beating Trump? Presumably he will, but he could wake up on March 16 to find his delegate advantage greatly reduced, and with the remaining list of Cruz Country states on the calendar looking mighty slim.
Looking ahead to the potential “contested convention” that is the anti-Trump cabal’s strategic linchpin, Cruz’s main leverage is the possibility that he could put Trump over the top on a second ballot if he is prematurely cast aside by the Establishment folk. He could even position himself as a “unity candidate” whose views on immigration and national security are closer to Trump’s than any other available candidate’s. More likely he’ll be the odd man out in whatever decisions the Establishment makes, having already burned his bridges to Trump’s insurgency to a smoking cinder. Right now the candidate running second to Trump seems doomed to failure whichever way he — or the worm — turns. His consolation will be that, like Rubio, he’s still very young, and, unlike Rubio, he hasn’t given up his Senate seat to participate in this wild presidential nominating contest.