Why Republicans Need to Nominate Ted Cruz

by Stuart Rothenberg October 15, 2015 · 11:07 AM EDT

It is increasingly apparent the GOP needs to nominate Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president next year.

The party’s difficulty in finding a broadly acceptable candidate for speaker, combined with the success of anti-establishment candidates in the presidential race, should make it clear to all that the fissure in the Republican Party is becoming wider and deeper.

House Freedom Caucus conservatives believe they are growing stronger within the GOP, and they are likely to look for more opportunities to flex their muscles over the next year.

Even if Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan agrees to run for speaker, the division in the Republican Party will not disappear. Conservatives who see Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as adversaries rather than allies will never embrace compromise, and they will forever believe that nominating someone for president who can offer a sharp contrast with Democrats will bring out millions of new conservative voters.

It’s time to make the anti-establishment wing of the GOP put up or shut up.

For years, the most conservative elements of the party have complained about nominees such as Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney, seeing those Republican leaders as pragmatists who didn’t deeply hold conservative principles and weren’t worthy of the label “Republican.”

According to those conservatives, the GOP loses when “squishy” Republican nominees don’t offer voters a sharp contrast, and because of that, millions of conservative voters sit at home, unexcited with the choices offered.

Even the government shutdown of two years ago didn’t convince tea party conservatives in Congress that their strategy was unwise and backfired dramatically. After all, they now can note — Republicans made additional House and Senate gains in 2014, even after all the media hysteria associated with the shutdown.

Of course, national polling from respectable pollsters showed substantial damage to the GOP brand during the shutdown, but the party was saved by the administration’s messy launch of its Obamacare website. It isn’t clear that Democratic ineptness will save Republicans from themselves a second time.

So, the GOP has been and remains a political party at war with itself. And because of that, the congressional wing of the party will remain paralyzed, with as few as a three or four dozen conservatives (sometimes many more) making it impossible for the party’s leadership to lead.

Cruz has been a cheerleader for those House Republicans who are most adamant in opposing compromise. Indeed, The New York Times noted that while Cruz “conceded defeat” when Congress voted to end the 16-day government shutdown, he did not “express contrition.”

“Unfortunately, the Washington establishment is failing to listen to the American people,” the Texas senator said, according to the Times.

Cruz wasn’t alone in believing “the American people” were on his side. Fewer than half of House Republicans voted for the measure to end the shutdown, and that bill passed only because House GOP leadership was willing to rely on Democratic votes to make up for Republican defections.

As a spokesman for the no compromise, anti-establishment wing of his party, Cruz would be the ideal presidential nominee for conservatives tired of Republican leaders. He could ask a like-minded governor, possibly Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, to join his ticket, giving voters the clear choice that conservatives claim they never have.

But could Cruz win? I don’t think so. He might well carry all or most of the 22 states that McCain carried in 2008, and if the Democratic nominee is damaged badly enough and Barack Obama’s standing in national polls low enough, I suppose it might be possible that he could win.

But it is far more likely that Cruz would underperform among swing voters and suffer additional Republican defections. His nomination would enable Democrats to make the election a referendum on him and the tea party, and it isn’t difficult to imagine 2016 becoming a modern day version of 1964, when Republicans suffered a humiliating defeat.

A Cruz nomination would virtually guarantee Democratic control of the Senate after November’s elections. GOP senators in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and, of course, Illinois would have little chance of being re-elected, and the party’s prospects in a handful of other Senate races, (e.g., Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and even Arizona) would suddenly become more worrisome.

Given the relatively low number of truly competitive House districts, the GOP might well be able to retain control of the House, but even that is not certain.

So why should the GOP nominate Cruz if it entails so much risk? Because a clear and convincing defeat is the only thing in the foreseeable future that has any chance of convincing Freedom Caucus types in the Republican Party that their strategy is flawed and they have helped damage the Republican brand. (Alas, even a crushing defeat wouldn’t convince everyone.)

Until that happens, Republicans, and the country in general, seem destined to suffer through more months of legislative shutdowns and gridlock that will further weaken the country.