Opinion

Don’t Count The GOP ‘Establishment’ Out Quite Yet

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer

Don’t count the so-called Republican establishment out quite yet.

Over the last month, much of the political press has weighed in to declare the race for the Republican nomination is really down to just two candidates: Donald Trump and [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore].

“Face It: It’s A Two-Man Race For The GOP Nomination Now,” an op-ed in The Daily Beast bellowed on Jan. 14, arguing Cruz and Trump were the last two candidates standing.

“Republicans now see a Trump-Cruz race, with time for a shift running out,” a Washington Post story was headlined two days later.

At the time this narrative developed, Cruz had eclipsed Trump in the polls in Iowa and it appeared that the Texas senator was headed for a victory in the caucuses, while Trump seemed on the path to victory in New Hampshire.

But after a few weeks of relentless attacks against Cruz by Trump, the billionaire Republican frontrunner has once again vaulted into a commanding position in Iowa, according to the latest polls. And while Cruz has climbed into second place in New Hampshire, a failure to win in Iowa could severely blunt his momentum in the Granite State and elsewhere.

Enter the so-called “GOP establishment” (like many, I hate the term because it’s not clear who this “establishment” exactly consists of, but the term’s been forced upon us, so let’s go with it for the sake of argument). Imagine for a moment if Trump defeats Cruz in Iowa by a substantial margin, as some polls currently suggest. Given the expectations that have developed for Cruz in the Hawkeye State, that could put his campaign on life support. It’s certainly hard to imagine he could sustain his current second place position in New Hampshire in such a scenario. (RELATED: In Search Of The ‘Republican Establishment’)

If [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] claims a strong third in Iowa, he would enter New Hampshire with the momentum to, if not to win, then claim a commanding second in the primary, knocking out all the other Republican contenders – Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich – who are competing with him in what has been termed the “establishment” lane.

If that happens, welcome to a Trump-Rubio race – or, potentially, a Trump-Rubio-Cruz race, with Cruz eyeing the so-called “SEC primary” on March 1 as his last stand.

In such a race, Rubio has a real chance. As many have pointed out, a candidate like Rubio – or any non-Cruz/Trump candidate — is much better positioned to win many of the states that come later in the GOP primary calendar than they are some of the earlier states. This is especially true if Christie, Bush and Kasich drop out after New Hampshire and Rubio can claim a majority of their supporters.

Now, it’s worth noting that Rubio isn’t exactly the poster boy for the so-called “establishment,” no matter how you define it. He became a tea party superstar by upsetting a sitting governor to win his Senate seat in 2010. But the Florida senator certainly is a candidate that boasts much more support from the Washington political class than Cruz or Trump.

The point is, this is not just a Trump-Cruz race, not yet at least. Rubio is still in the game — and there’s a good argument to be made he is in a better position than Cruz right now. If Ohio Gov. John Kasich somehow stuns everyone in New Hampshire, as some recent polls suggest he could, he may be in the picture as well, eclipsing Rubio in that “establishment” lane. In short, there is still a chance that a non-Cruz/Trump candidate will emerge as a serious contender for the nomination.

That is, unless Trump wins Iowa and New Hampshire by a far greater margin than polls currently predict, demonstrating his support is even broader than most have imagined. If it turns out that Trump, like Jesse Ventura in his 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial triumph, is attracting a substantial stream of voters to the ballot box that haven’t traditionally showed up in the past, the Republican primary might be over before we know it. We’ll find out if that’s the reality of the race soon enough.

As of now, the Republican primary is still up in the air, even as Trump seems to only rise in the polls. If the political “establishment” hopes to have a candidate it can easily stomach, it better pray it’s a long race.

Follow Jamie on Twitter