Before him, the immensely popular Marco Rubio was the party’s favorite candidate, until he committed the unpardonable sin of working to pass immigration reform. Before that, it was Chris Christie, whom the GOP adored until he got a little too cozy with the president in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It’s enough to make Rand Paul seem like their best option—until you consider that he’s angered the tea party by supporting immigration reform, the establishment by espousing isolationist foreign policy views, and his own libertarian base by supporting Mitt Romney in 2012. Veer right, you’re damned; veer left, you’re jammed; play it up the center, you’re toast.
The cycle of anointment and repudiation echoes the 2012 GOP primaries, when Republicans elevated one candidate after another: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. When voters finally settled on Romney, the candidate had lower favorability and higher unfavorability ratings than any presidential nominee in modern history.
GOP strategist Rick Wilson calls this “the Highlander theory,” after the ’90s TV show about the Scottish warrior who needs to behead other immortals because there can be only one. Ted Cruz became The One by eclipsing Rubio, who had ascended only a few months earlier. “Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio made similar mistakes in opposite directions,” says Ben Domenech, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute and the publisher of The Federalist. “Rubio obviously tacked toward the center with a push for coming together on immigration policy, and that did damage to his standing with the conservative base. Cruz on the other hand tacked to the right in a way that helped his standing with base but hurt [his] standing with centrists who had been previously open to the idea of him.”