Ted Cruz was expected to pander to the pro-Israel sentiments of members of the Republican Jewish Coalition when he addressed their gathering in Las Vegas over the weekend, and he did just that. Cruz has a record as an ardent supporter of the Jewish state and has in the past even shown a willingness to defy some sectors of the Christian community in order to make that point. But the main headline out of Cruz’s address wasn’t about him convincing RJC members and donors that he is a reliable friend of Israel. Even though most of them were supporters of other candidates that have since dropped out (principally Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio), they needed no convincing on that score. Rather, Cruz’s mission was to signal to a group that could well be labeled as tied to the party establishment — many of whose members are talking openly about being “burned out” by the race — that they could either back him or stand back and watch the Republican Party go down the drain in November with Donald Trump.
But the question that political observers must ask about this pitch isn’t so much whether Cruz can convince them he’s right as it is whether it will matter what large donors or party activists think about the question of electability. If, as has been the pattern for most of the primary season, voters in Republican primaries prioritize whether a candidate “tells it like it is” more than whether they can win a general election against a Democrat, then talk of a “bloodbath” isn’t going to influence the outcome of the GOP race.
It’s doubtful that many of the RJC crowd doubt Cruz’s credentials on the Middle East or were persuaded by Trump’s pro-Israel speech that he read off a teleprompter (still the only scripted Trump speech given throughout the entire campaign). If Israel is an issue at all in the New York primary — the only one where the Jewish vote might play even a small role — it works to Cruz’s advantage. Jewish Republicans might be able to influence the outcome in some New York Congressional districts where more conservative Orthodox voters predominate, assuming that enough of them are registered Republicans in a city and a state where Democrats dominate.
But the main point of Cruz’s RJC speech was to sound a warning to the very forces within the party that he has been running against. They must, he is implying, make their peace with him or resign themselves to a Trump disaster that will wipe out Republican Congressional majorities. In speaking of a bloodbath, Cruz is laying the foundation of a post-first ballot convention strategy. He hopes to add former Bush and Rubio supporters to his evangelical and Tea Party base in an effort to forge a majority if Trump falls short of a majority. Cruz’s argument is also more than just a #neverTrump appeal. He’s reminding those establishment Republicans tempted to back John Kasich that although the Ohio governor does even better in general election polls than Cruz, he simply has no path to the nomination and is opposed by most GOP voters.
The evidence for Cruz’s claim about electability is indisputable. It’s true that the Real Clear Politics average of polls that measure a head-to-head matchup between Cruz and Hillary Clinton show the Democrat in the lead. But the 2.5 percent average lead is not insurmountable and even if it holds up would not generate the sort of landslide that could affect Republican members of the House and Senate. Of course, the Democratic attack machine hasn’t really started in on Cruz since they’ve been focusing all along on other GOP candidate they thought were more likely to win the nomination such as Bush and now Trump. But though establishment Republicans may think Cruz is potentially as much of a liability as Trump, the polls show that the difference between the two is significant.
Clinton slaughters Trump in all the head-to-head polls with the average now in double digits. Trump’s negatives among the general election electorate are now so high as to render him virtually unelectable even against a weak candidate like Clinton. Trump may claim that he can steal many working-class Democrats away from Clinton, but it’s arguable that such voters fled the party of Barack Obama already. More to the point, the country’s demographics are such that there simply may not be enough angry white male voters to elect Trump no matter how many of them turn out in November. Dislike of Trump also means that young voters and minorities may turn out for Clinton in the same numbers that they did for Obama, which is a virtual guarantee of a GOP defeat.
Yet if GOP donors, even the stalwarts of the RJC, haven’t realized that their priorities are not those of most primary voters by now, then they never will. Even if Cruz is right about a bloodbath, GOP primary voters don’t seem to care about that. If even in the Northeast, Republicans are more interested in a candidate that will feed off their anti-establishment anger than in nominating one that would be competitive against Clinton, Trump is going to win those states and get close enough to a majority of delegates that will ensure he gets the nomination.
Can Cruz convince the rest of the party not already seduced by Trump to get behind him? At the moment, given Kasich’s continued presence in the race and the dismal polls that show Trump winning in the Northeast, the odds may be against him. It’s a little late in the day to start a stop Trump movement, but Republicans that once could never have imagined backing Cruz and are already “burned out” from seeing their favorites fail may have to consider going all in on him or resign themselves to the bloodbath that will follow.