Sen. Ted Cruz was overshadowed during much of the first GOP debate, but he finished strong. And this might turn out to be a microcosm of his larger campaign plan.
True, Donald Trump is sucking up everyone’s oxygen. And, yes, logic would dictate that — because he occupies the same populist space as Cruz — Trump would take a disproportionate number of votes from the Texas conservative. But, instead, Cruz is polling well — in third place, behind Trump and Ben Carson, according to a new Fox News poll.
And if Trump gets out of the race (for now, that’s a big if ), it’s possible that Cruz could inherit at least some of Trump’s supporters.
To be sure, it’s not clear that Trump could simply transfer his supporters (or their excitement) to someone else, even if he wanted to make an official endorsement. But who stands to gain more from a Trump exodus than Cruz (which, of course, explains why he has refused to criticize The Donald)?
Like the “shake and bake” move in Talladega Nights, Trump’s existence means he catches most of the resistance, giving Cruz something of a free pass. The hope for Cruz is that he can eventually “slingshot” across the finish line — if and when Trump gets out of the way.
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But that’s not the only interesting thing Cruz has going on. Cruz recently told the Koch network donor summit that he views “the SEC primary as a firewall” (many Southern states will hold Republican primaries on March 1). While this, in itself, is an interesting strategy, even more interesting to me was that Cruz enlisted Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel to help his campaign.
From a national branding perspective, McDaniel is a disaster — one of the last people a conservative hoping to win a presidential General Election would enlist as a surrogate. But for Cruz’s more immediate purposes, this is incredibly smart. Remember, McDaniel came within a whisker of winning his 2014 mid-term race against incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, and very likely would have won, had it been a closed primary.
But Cruz’s embrace of McDaniel also reminds me of something. In his book Hardball, Chris Matthews recalls how a one-term Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter was able to build a national network capable of winning the 1976 presidential nomination.
It started with the 1974 mid-terms. On the night of the ’74 elections, when the DNC chairman was calling the winners, Matthews writes, “the governor was calling the losers.”
As Matthews notes, the winners had no need for Carter. They were going to get attention from Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. “‘It was the underdogs,’ [Carter aide] Jody Powell told me, ‘who needed Carter’ — just as he would need them.”
And McDaniel isn’t the only example. Cruz also named Steve Lonegan — a perennial conservative candidate who previously lost a gubernatorial primary bid to Chris Christie — as his man in New Jersey.
This is a win-win. It makes sense for Lonegan and McDaniel to hitch their wagons to Ted Cruz’s star. And it makes sense for Cruz, too. In the words of Tom Petty, Even the losers get lucky sometimes.
* This post has been updated.
** Note: The author’s wife advises Rick Perry, and previously consulted for Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign.