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Cruz can't seal the deal with GOP colleagues

Senate Republicans are all for stopping Donald Trump. But they are twisting themselves like pretzels to avoid officially endorsing their colleague Ted Cruz.

Increasingly, Cruz’s colleagues are grudgingly saying nice things about the Texas senator who has given them headaches for years with his strident stands and scorched-earth tactics. But when it comes down to it, they just can’t bring themselves to make it official, even as Cruz’s campaign could use a shot in the arm after a crushing loss in New York ahead of a string of Northeastern primaries next week that favor Trump.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida says he wants a conservative nominee and that Cruz is the only conservative left. But no, no, he says, that’s not an endorsement. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska voted for Cruz and tweeted about it: But you’re getting ahead of yourself if you call that an official blessing, aides say.

And Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho went on CNN this month to say he “hopes” Cruz wins. Well, did he endorse?

“Wolf Blitzer said I did,” Risch said in an interview, adding that he did “not really” throw his backing behind Cruz. “Having said that, I think he’s the logical heir apparent for the Republican Party.”

This logic by Republicans extends all the way to the top ranks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a Louisville TV station over the weekend that he’s “optimistic” that the GOP convention goes to a second ballot, an implicit knock on front-runner Trump. Yet he followed it up with a seemingly incongruent comment: “I’m not going to comment on the presidential candidates.” He conceded Tuesday that his comments were made “somewhat inartfully.”

Add it all up and senators say Cruz is no closer to getting any more congressional backing than he was two weeks ago.

“I don’t hear people talking about it,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “And my impression is it’s never been a big priority for [Cruz].”

But earlier this month, it appeared Cruz was finally serious about winning over Senate Republicans as the alternative to Trump, who’s viewed as a poor standard-bearer in November that could imperil GOP majorities in both houses and “ruin the party,” in the words of Risch. Cruz even trotted out former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to help whip up support on Capitol Hill, to little obvious effect.

Asked for a list of endorsements, the Cruz campaign claimed Risch and Sasse, noting that Sasse voted for Cruz — despite protests from both senators that they haven’t officially endorsed Cruz.

Support for Cruz hasn’t materialized for two key reasons: After seeing their favored candidates, Rubio and Jeb Bush, go down in flames, congressional Republicans are reluctant to cast their lot with Cruz, who despite his strong recent finishes remains an underdog to Trump. And, so far, Cruz hasn’t worked to seal the deal with personal outreach to GOP senators.

“I look forward to talking to the campaign. We haven’t had that conversation yet,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

Gardner said ahead of the Colorado Republican convention that if Cruz won he’d be more receptive to backing the Texan. That would be a coup for Cruz, considering how energetically the freshman senator pushed Rubio’s candidacy on the Hill. Yet the Colorado contest wrapped up more than a week ago.

Cruz hasn’t been in the Capitol since February, despite senators asking for him to appear. Even as Cruz refuses to apologize for calling McConnell a liar, attending at the GOP caucus weekly lunch would show that he cares enough about the backing of his colleagues to divert his campaign to D.C. and demonstrate in person why they should risk the ire of Trump.

“I still think that’s a good idea,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who personally implored Cruz more than a month ago to visit D.C. and the GOP caucus. “If you’re going to be a leader of a unified Republican Party, then I think that would be an important step in that direction.”

Asked whether Cruz would consider ramping up his personal outreach on Capitol Hill, Cruz communications director Alice Stewart would only reiterate that the senator is focused on engaging the grass roots.

“That’s the key to success,” she said, pointing to recent victories in states like Wisconsin and in delegate contests from Colorado to North Dakota.

There’s ample debate over whether an official congressional endorsement matters. And in a year of political outsiders, many Republicans say partywide backing from an unpopular Congress will have little effect on Cruz’s campaign — with some exceptions.

“There’s obviously value in an endorsement from Rubio,” said Cruz supporter Tony Perkins, head of the socially conservative Family Research Council, who added that Cruz is generally better off focusing on winning over voters rather than senators.

Yet Rubio has gone to great lengths not do anything official for Cruz, even though he thinks John Kasich can’t win and Trump is not a conservative. Rubio said he’s trying to stay as far away from the campaign as possible — an impossible task for someone who won 171 delegates and became the presidential favorite of Capitol Hill Republicans.

Rubio argues that though he said Cruz was a conservative and that he wants a conservative nominee that does not mean he made an endorsement.

“Those were my personal preferences,” Rubio said of his praise for Cruz last week. “At this point, I don’t think it’s helpful for the party to have people weighing in and endorsements aren’t really going to change the direction of the campaign, from my perspective.”

Ditto Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the party’s leading libertarian voice who dropped out of the race in February, with Cruz swooping in to pick up his supporters. But Paul seems to care little about getting involved in the race and said he’d rather concentrate on the Senate than doing TV hits on behalf of a candidate like Cruz, who Paul has said is too sharp-elbowed for the Senate.

“I just don’t know that I’d want to be somebody’s surrogate and be defending all their positions. It might dilute what I stand for,” Paul said.

The uneasy relationship between Cruz and GOP senators goes both ways. People in Cruz’s orbit feel that lawmakers cloistered on Capitol Hill are nursing dated grudges against the senator and are out of touch with the rest of the Republican Party. The grass roots have long adored Cruz and establishment pillars like Bush have come to see him as an acceptable alternative to Trump.

In other corners of GOP politics, Cruz has made some progress landing donors and operatives previously supporting other candidates. Even some of the former candidates, such as Graham and Rick Perry, have thrown their support behind him, in large part because many see him as their last chance to thwart Trump. This all comes as Cruz emphasizes the importance of GOP “unity,” especially in the effort to stop Trump, at every turn.

“Five former presidential candidates who were certainly not in agreement with him in the campaign joined the team; I’ve been on board and am a former U.S. senator, Sen. Mike Lee is on board,” said former Sen. Bob Smith, Cruz’s New Hampshire co-chair who still makes campaign trail appearances.

Lee had been burning up the phones to recruit Senate backers for Cruz but spent the past week pursuing his own bid for party leadership. Graham has helped Cruz raise money and speaks to him regularly, yet has not attracted any like-minded centrists to officially get behind the rock-ribbed conservative.

“People are more aware that he’s probably our best choice left. It’s up to him and members,” Graham said. With a Cruz endorsement, he added, “You make the Trump people mad … you make the Kasich people mad … I can see why people are reluctant to get involved with the mess that we’re in.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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