The GOP establishment's nightmare: What if the race comes down to Trump versus Ted Cruz?

Gooooood question by Scott McKay, and he’s not just blowing smoke. A Trump/Cruz death match, while still implausible, is more plausible than it might seem thanks to Cruz’s surprising fundraising strength. He’s got the dough to make a long run if voters give him a reason to keep going. And so does Donald Trump, of course.

Two populists enter, one populist leaves.

Cruz has regional strength in Texas and Louisiana, which could translate into his picking up Perry and Jindal supporters. Despite his clashes with Graham in the Senate, Cruz’ calls for a muscular foreign policy could appeal to the several dozen supporters the South Carolinian has amassed. Those of Christie’s supporters who came to him for his combative style might look to Cruz rather than Trump.

And then after the second round of dropouts, Cruz could gain even more support. Particularly should Paul leave the race; if he isn’t gaining ground, at some point he’s going to have to consider whether his smartest play won’t be to return to Kentucky to defend his Senate seat, and Cruz is a friend and partner in many cases (though for Paul so is Mitch McConnell, which makes for an interesting conflict). Should Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum drop out, none of the others has put in more work to attract the social conservatives they represent than Cruz…

We could see a situation where Trump is ahead on the strength of his performance in the early states and still leads in the polls, though he might have commenced fading in the face of the various challenges befalling a presidential candidate and the terror gripping the party of having to nominate a bull-in-a-China-shop like the real estate magnate has not subsided. But while the establishment might believe Trump is beatable, they could be without candidates to beat him.

Is that what those “secret” chats between Cruz and Trump are about? Some master plan to clear the rest of the GOP field between them? Suddenly I’m imagining a “special message” from Trump next spring, aired live from his office in Trump Tower, in which he reveals that his candidacy was actually part of an elaborate pincer movement to outwit the GOP donor class and pave the way for the man he’s really supporting for president — at which point Ted Cruz steps into frame. Then they both laugh mwa-ha-ha style as Karl Rove, watching from home, leaps to his feet and covers his mouth in astonishment. My God — it’s all so clear now.

McKay’s prediction: If forced to choose, the RINOs would swallow hard and opt for the devil they know, Ted Cruz, over the one they don’t, which I think is true. Establishmentarians value stability above all things and Cruz, at least, is a known quantity, however much they may disdain his ideology. Trump, although a moderate and therefore closer to them on most policies, is a true loose cannon. Forced to choose between a guy who’d threaten the status quo from the inside and one who’d do it from the outside, they’ll take door number one every time. Besides, Cruz is willing to make concessions to “electability” that Trump isn’t. Look no further than immigration to see the difference. Trump is out there screeching about mass deportations; Cruz concedes that some illegals should be legalized. And of course Cruz isn’t going to go out there as president and call the president of Mexico a “fat loser” or whatever.

So yeah, the establishment would go with the professional politician if they had to decide. And conservative voters, of course, would go with the true conservative. That was the significance of yesterday’s PPP poll out of North Carolina: When given a choice between Trump and Marco Rubio or Scott Walker, righties opt for the latter despite giving Trump fairly solid marks on favorability. Meanwhile, undecideds would line up behind the professional pol, knowing that he’d be less likely to alienate swing voters with his rhetoric in the general election and therefore would be more electable. And even some Trump fans, satisfied that the true RINOs in the race like Jeb Bush had been eliminated, would switch to Cruz knowing that he’s as anti-establishment in his own way as Trump is. I think Cruz wins the war with Trump easily.

But wait. Would the GOP establishment ever really allow a Trump/Cruz race to develop? Give me a scenario in which the early primaries play out and somehow the donor class gets caught flat-footed with Trump and Cruz the only two guys left who are viable. Imagine that they both do shockingly well early on — Trump wins New Hampshire, Cruz wins South Carolina, and one of the two of them wins Iowa. What happens at that point, with the “SEC primary” in the south on March 1st right around the corner? What happens, I think, is that establishmentarians settle on Marco Rubio as the last best “electable” hope of the party and throw an ocean of cash at him to get his message out. Walker will be a dead letter at that point after having lost Iowa and Bush will be badly damaged from having lost New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Cruz and Trump will be out on the stump banging the drum about cracking down on illegals. The obvious solution for Beltway righties is to come together behind the young, rhetorically gifted, Latino candidate with the sky high favorable ratings in all the polls. If Rubio pulled off a win over Jeb in the Florida primary, that would put him right back in the race; meanwhile, all the “somewhat conservative” voters who think Trump’s a clown and that Cruz is too far right would eagerly swing behind him in a “save us, Marco!” effort. The Republican establishment didn’t get to be where it is by letting itself be outmaneuvered by populist insurgents, even if one of those insurgents has a few billion in the bank. If Walker and Bush have no victories between them after New Hampshire, they’ll come under heavy pressure from donors to drop out and back Rubio. And if one of them does end up with an early win, that guy will have enough momentum that he, rather than Rubio, will probably become the great establishment hope against Trump and Cruz, with loads of new money showered on him to keep him going through the primaries. There simply won’t be a binary Trump/Cruz choice at any point of this race, unless there’s some sort of total meltdown within the donor class.

Exit question: Are we sure McKay’s right that establishmentarians would prefer Cruz over Trump? I think they would for the reasons I’ve stated, but the one great virtue of Trump to a Beltway Republican is that he can, in theory, be coopted ideologically. You’ll have a hard time getting Cruz to go RINO because he’s an ideologue; Trump, whose politics are more eclectic, should be easier to sway. Provided you can get past the thought of “fat loser” name-calling during Rose Garden press conferences, that is.