The conservative movement and the Republican Establishment — the two overlapping networks dedicated to keeping the party’s presidential nomination out of Donald Trump’s hands — have thrown their lot in with Ted Cruz, the only real (that is to say, non-Kasich) obstacle remaining. Beneath that surface agreement, though, lies a strategic schism. One faction is reconciled to the possibility of Cruz as the actual party nominee and leader. They now detect in Cruz previously undiscovered virtues of strategic competence and are fêting him with inspiring socialist-realist cover treatments afforded to certified Great Men of the right.
The anti-Cruz faction finds itself in a less comfortable spot. Nearly all of the Republican Party’s Cruz haters loathe him for practical reasons: His entire, albeit short, Senate career has been devoted to stoking unrealistic expectations among conservative activists. Cruz loathers have mostly realized that the qualities they find alarming in Cruz are even more evident in Trump. So they are plotting to use his candidacy to deny Trump a majority of delegates, then go to the convention and deny the nomination to Cruz as well, handing it to an Establishment favorite. Figures like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers are open about their hopes that the beneficiary of their machinations could be Paul Ryan. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is more coy about it.
But the plan to use Cruz, and then discard him in Cleveland, is running into a series of obstacles.
1. The first part of the plan requires enticing enough Republican voters to support Cruz to deny Trump a majority of delegates. But that is tricky to do when you’re treating him with barely disguised contempt. Idaho senator Jim Risch told CNN he “hopes” Cruz will win, then proceeded to quibble over whether he had actually endorsed Cruz. Wolf Blizter: “You sort of said you prefer him over the two. That sounds like an endorsement, doesn’t it?” Risch: “I guess. It depends on your definition.”
What the Cruz users are attempting, in other words, is to gin up votes for Cruz without generating so much enthusiasm for the man that his supporters would object to dumping him at the convention. Calibrating just enough support for Cruz to deny Trump his majority without also creating a mandate for Cruz is a balance Republicans will have trouble maintaining.
2. Denying Cruz the nomination will require concerted action by delegates at the Republican convention. But Cruz is scooping up those delegates almost uncontested. The delegates to the convention are being selected at a series of state and local party meetings, held after the general voting, that are being dominated by Cruz’s activist network. As Nate Silver points out, “considering that relatively few states have completed their convention process, it’s remarkable how many examples you can find of Cruz cleaning Trump’s clock: for example, in Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and South Dakota.”
Those delegates will mostly be bound on the first ballot to support a candidate dictated by their state’s voters, but on subsequent ballots they can vote their conscience, and their conscience is going to lie with Cruz. Here is a way to think about how this process is working. There are three candidates for the nomination: Trump, Cruz, and an as-yet-unnamed Establishment pick. Trump is too disorganized to work the follow-up conventions that are selecting the delegates. (He hasn’t even managed to register his own adult children to vote in New York.) The Establishment candidate can’t organize these races, either, because he doesn’t exist yet. Therefore Cruz is running a virtually unopposed campaign to pick the people who will fill Quicken Loans Arena. If Cruz keeps cleaning up at delegate selection, then he’ll stand not only to win an open convention but win it overwhelmingly.
3. The anti-Cruzers are being forced out into the open. Organizing a plan to stop Trump, then stop Cruz, then rally around an Establishment candidate is hard to do under any circumstances. It’s impossible to do in secret. As names of the candidates leak out, they face questions from the media along with blistering hostility from supporters of both Trump and Cruz. Paul Ryan — the Establishment’s first-round draft pick — was forced to hold a press conference to disavow any intention of getting the nomination in Cleveland. Any alternative Establishment candidate will face the same pressure.
The Republican Establishment is trying to pull off a wildly complex scheme in an election when it has failed at even basic party functions. Republican elites may want to seize the nomination from Trump and Cruz, and candidates like Ryan (or Mitt Romney, or somebody else) may covet the nomination. But at this point the task looks fantastical.