While Marco Rubio was flailing in Florida, Ted Cruz’s team was lying in wait, preparing to move state by state, donor by donor to capture Rubio’s supporters after his fall. And with Rubio out, that effort is now in full swing.
Even before Rubio formally exited the race, Cruz’s team was communicating with donors and other prominent Rubio supporters — Cruz senior foreign policy adviser Victoria Coates, for example, was checking in with people like prominent Bush administration figure and Rubio backer Elliott Abrams.
When Rubio did drop, the Texan’s team sprang into action across the country.
In Utah, his leadership team moved to lock down the Florida senator’s lengthy list of legislative endorsements before next Tuesday’s caucus. Cruz is planning to meet with Gov. Gary Herbert Saturday at a campaign kickoff event for Utah Sen. Mike Lee, another Cruz ally. In Washington, several of Rubio’s national security advisers signed on with Cruz — after, in part, courting from Coates. And nationally, Cruz’s money team is making the case to Rubio’s former donors that Cruz’s time has come.
Their message: The party is running out of time to stop Donald Trump — and Cruz is the only one who can do it.
“We need to unite,” said Chris Herrod, a former Utah state legislator who is Cruz’s campaign coordinator in the state, characterizing his message to former Rubio backers. “The only person that can beat Donald Trump right now is Sen. Cruz.”
The broad-based, national effort comes as Cruz seeks to consolidate the anti-Trump wing of the GOP behind his campaign. He lags well behind Trump in delegates, but his team is hopeful that with a united party behind him, he’ll turn that deficit into a lead by the time the he heads to the Republican National Convention in July. They insist he could do even better: assemble enough delegates to score an outright win — though that’s a path that has narrowed dramatically and remains a long-shot for Cruz.
A win in Utah on Tuesday, however, would be a significant first step toward catching up in the delegate count, and Cruz enjoyed a boost toward that goal Friday when former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney—whom Cruz has frequently criticized– said he would vote for Cruz in Utah over Trump and over Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“A vote for Governor Kasich in future contests makes it extremely likely that Trumpism would prevail,” Romney wrote in a Facebook post, echoing Cruz’s argument. “I will vote for Senator Cruz and I encourage others to do so as well, so that we can have an open convention and nominate a Republican.”
State Republicans will dole out 40 delegates when they hold caucuses. Cruz could grab them all by scoring more than 50 percent of the vote. If no candidate hits that threshold, the delegates get divvied up proportionally.
Rubio had the monopoly on Utah legislative endorsements, but now that he’s out, Herrod and others on Cruz’s team in the state are working the phones and tapping their political relationships, seeking to bring over ex-Rubio supporters to Cruz. It’s an approach the campaign is expected to replicate in other states that vote down the line, including in Arizona, which also votes next week.
Herrod passed along the names of two state representatives, Mike Noel and Brad Daw, who had been backing Rubio and were now, he said, with Cruz. Five others, he said, were on the sidelines until this week but have now also come on board.
Cruz’s team is echoing that message, of the importance of unifying around one candidate, to donors across the country.
“There’s only two serious candidates,” said Mica Mosbacher, a Houston-based fundraiser for Cruz, referring to the Texas senator and to Trump. “What I’ve said is, some people are going to have to say the Serenity Prayer. Neither one may be their favorite flavor or first choice, but if they want to defeat Hillary, they’re going to have to choose a candidate. Cruz’s strength is, he’s whip smart. He sells the steak, not the sizzle.”
Former Rubio supporters say they’ve heard that argument, which often comes infused with a dose of alarm over Trump.
“Their pitch is very direct: He’s the guy who can stop Trump,” said a former Rubio backer who has heard it. “They walk through the next series of elections coming, primaries, and give a very clear-eyed, realistic assessment of what their chances are, how they’re going to go forward, what they’re asking for. It is a very clear appeal in that sense.”
But Cruz faces long odds in his effort to beat Trump outright before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, and even his plan B—going into the convention as the delegate leader—looks to be an uphill battle. Trump has 678 delegates, Cruz has 413, and the Northeastern and industrial Midwestern-heavy map going forward is not natural Cruz territory.
Still, he has far more delegates than does Kasich, who has only 143 after winning only Ohio—his home state—outright. The Cruz campaign’s hope is twofold: that the calendar going forward, which features many closed primaries in which only Republicans can vote, will be friendly terrain as they seek to mobilize conservatives; and that he will be boosted by an influx of supporters who previously backed other candidates, like Rubio.
Yet it’s unclear how much of a groundswell of ex-Rubio support he can expect. There has been no rush in the Senate—where Rubio enjoyed plenty of endorsements– to get behind Cruz: he currently has support from only two of his colleagues, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and the virulently anti-Trump Lindsey Graham.
And some Rubio donors are planning to either focus on House and Senate races or simply stay out of politics for the moment, as many of Rubio’s key advisers also remain on the sidelines for now.
“I’ve been a Rubio guy from the beginning,” said George Seay, a prominent Texas-based GOP donor who knows the Cruz team well. “That’s where I sit today…I don’t just hop from campaign to campaign.”
But Cruz has also seen some prominent pro-Rubio forces come out for him, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Graham, whose support for Cruz—after saying he preferred Rubio—is remarkable, given how openly he previously detested his Texas colleague. He will now headline a fundraiser for Cruz on Monday.
Mosbacher said Haley’s backing of Cruz, in particular, was something internalized and valued by former Rubio supporters.
And on Friday, Cruz’s campaign announced that former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm would be spearheading outreach to members of Congress.
“We’re down in a critical period in this election where more and more Republicans recognize the fact that Donald Trump would be a disastrous nominee,” Cruz communications director Alice Stewart added. “The only way to stop that from happening is to get behind the true, consistent conservative in this race that can and has beaten Donald Trump.”
Rubio himself told supporters this week that Cruz was the “only conservative left in the race,” according to a report.
On Thursday, two prominent members of Rubio’s national security team—Elliott Abrams, the former high-ranking national security official in the Bush administration, and former Sen. Jim Talent—publicly came out for Cruz.
“I like him and respect him, and I think he is the last realistic potential Republican nominee besides Donald Trump,” Abrams said.
His move to Cruz’s team was announced this week, but came following months of conversations with the senator’s team—particularly Coates, Cruz’s senior foreign policy adviser—who reached out to Abrams several days before the Florida primary, and circled back again after Rubio exited the race.
“When I went for Rubio, they said, presciently, ‘Well, we’re going to be the ones who end up standing at the end, so we hope you’ll support Cruz then,’” Abrams said. “And I said that I would be happy to do that. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.”
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