GOP establishment seeking revenge against Ted Cruz?

The question mark’s in the headline not because I doubt they’d like to take revenge but because I doubt they have the stones to do it.

Cruz hasn’t campaigned or raised money for GOP challengers, but he has forced a series of uncomfortable votes — the most prominent one being a debt-ceiling bill in February — that put imperiled incumbents on the spot. “After already forcing a strategic blunder on the conference, he stood up, looked his Republican colleagues in their eyes and said he wouldn’t work against them in the primaries.” says Kyle Downey, a former GOP Senate leadership aide. “Then he broke his word. Breaking your word, or lying, has consequences in the Senate, both seen and unseen. When it comes to the currency of relationships, he’s running up big debts.”

Not that Cruz needs much help. He remains enormously popular with a small but vocal part of the base. That has given him a powerful grassroots-fundraising platform. Even though he’s not up for re-election for another four years, Cruz has raised $1.8 million so far this cycle, $1.5 million of it coming from individual donations. He’ll need this kind of support and much more if he decides to run for President in 2016. By all accounts, Cruz’s push to shut down the government did not play well with business and corporate donors. “He’s the last person Wall Street would give money to,” says a big Republican donor. “They’re more interested in a Chris Christie or Jeb Bush. Even Rand Paul would be a preferable alternative to Cruz. How [Cruz] is going to run for President without big donors is beyond me.”…

“He’ll likely be a Jesse Helms, one of the lone conservative Senators who says outspoken and crazy things,” says a former GOP Senate leadership aide. “He’ll largely be marginalized.” Helms, who relished the title “Senator No,” was best known for his 16-day filibuster of a resolution declaring a public federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. “Like with Helms, there’ll be a certain amount of appeasement,” the Senate aide says. “But it’s like Star Wars: you don’t want to give in to the Dark Side.”

“If Cruz votes against McConnell and decides he’s not going to be caucusing with Republicans, kicking him off all his committees is an obvious move,” said GOP Hill aide John Feehery, who was last seen whining that Chris McDaniel’s strong primary showing would end up costing Mississippi lots of tasty federal pork. All of the above fits the basic fact pattern of the last nine months: The shutdown was the last straw for establishment Republicans and the business class that pays their rent, so now they’re going around clubbing tea partiers in the primaries as a warning to the sympathizers who are already in Congress. (McDaniel is the lone exception and he had lots of help from Thad Cochran’s listless campaigning.) This is all building, I think, towards a concerted push in 2016 to unseat Mike Lee, who helped lead the “defund” effort that led to the shutdown and whose defeat would be a symbolic triumph for the establishment. It was Lee, after all, who became the first tea-party challenger to beat a GOP incumbent. Replacing him with another establishmentarian would feel like an unwinding of the tea-party movement.

They can’t do that to Cruz, though. There’s a strong Republican establishment in Utah; in Texas, the Republican establishment is all but dead. Cruz naturally crushed the field in the Texas GOP’s presidential straw poll this weekend, held at the same convention where the party repealed its former pro-guest-worker agenda on immigration. Unless/until demographics shift to the point where Latinos are making the state competitive again, Cruz will hold the seat for as long as he wants it. The only establishment remedy, then, is to isolate him in Congress, which brings me back to the point up top. Do they dare? He’s no ordinary tea partier. He’s the face of the movement now. Strip him of his assignments and it’ll be seen, I think, as a more provocative bit of aggression against grassroots conservatives than the big anti-tea-party effort in the primaries this year was. And the more straw polls he wins — the one in Texas wasn’t the first — the harder it gets for McConnell et al. to banish him. In fact, I wonder if that’s not the real reason why Cruz might run for president in 2016. He’s a long shot in the primaries, notwithstanding the conservative enthusiasm for him; he’ll have no money from the donor class and, in most polls I’ve seen, his favorable numbers even among Republicans are no better than some of his competition. He’s a wild card because there’s a chance he’ll build a movement on the stump through the strength of his oratory, but in all likelihood his best showing is squashing Rand Paul on the right and then coming up short against the establishment champion. But that’s okay: As I say, maybe the real reason to run in 2016 is to flex his (and, by extension, the tea party’s) muscles nationally. If he does well, the Beltway GOP will think twice about crossing him in the foreseeable future. He might singlehandedly secure his, and the movement’s, claim to a share of power in Congress.

Fearless prediction: If we end up with a Republican president in 2017 (who, I’m assuming, won’t be Cruz), establishment Republicans will suddenly become warm to the idea of putting Cruz on the Supreme Court. That’s their best bet to get rid of him, and it has the virtue of earning them a little cred with conservative voters. Some Senate Democrats would resist, but presidential appointees drawn from Congress tend to get the collegial benefit of the doubt in confirmation hearings. Cruz, who’s seen as being not so collegial, wouldn’t get as much benefit, but between the fact that his professional record is clean and Democrats want to get him out of the Senate too, he might very well make it to 60. Much depends on what happens in Senate elections this year and 2016.