As the controversy rages over the fallout from Donald Trump’s outlandish comments about Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly and many of his Republican presidential rivals demand his apology, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) looks like the cat who swallowed the canary.
No one really thinks that Trump, the real estate tycoon and reality TV showman, has peaked since suggesting that Kelly was having her period when she peppered Trump Thursday night about his numerous past misogynistic quips. A new Reuters poll found him leading among Republican voters after the debate with 24 percent, compared to 12 percent for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
As brash, bombastic Trump’s White House bid begins to show signs of wear and tear, Cruz stands poised to inherit some of Trump’s momentum and apply it in new ways that could potentially wreak havoc on the Republican brand in the fall. Cruz has been careful not to criticize Trump in any way, even as other candidates including Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have denounced him as a blight on the party who should get out of the race.
While the crowded, 17-member GOP field has obsessed on the damage that Trump has done to the party by alienating Hispanics and women voters, an effervescent Cruz has raked in $1.1 million and embarked on a seven state southern swing this week. He seems to be positioning himself for a possible Trump stumble that would free up some of his hard-right conservative following.
Discounting any suggestion that he is salivating over the prospects of picking up some crumbs that might fall from Trump’s table, Cruz told MSNBC on Monday that “I’m making a play to pick up the supporters of every other candidate in this race.”
“We’re running a primary where our object is to unify Republicans,” he said. “I don’t think it is beneficial to the party or the country for us to be bickering like a bunch of children.”
“I think Cruz is positioning himself to try to take advantage [of Trump imploding],” James Carville, a political strategist and former President Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, told MSNBC on Monday. “Trump can go away, but he speaks for a good 30 percent of the Republican Party, and those people are not going to go away.”
The first-term Texas senator and Tea Party favorite has grated GOP leaders since arriving in Senate in early 2013, breaking several of chamber’s longstanding rules and spearheading the fight that lead to a 16-day partial government shutdown that fall.
Cruz has taken his war with Republicans leaders to new heights lately.
“If you're looking for someone to go to Washington, to go along to get along, to get -- to agree with the career politicians in both parties who get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests, then I ain't your guy,” he said during last week’s debate.
“There is a reason that we have $18 trillion in debt. Because as conservatives, as Republicans, we keep winning elections. We got a Republican House, we've got a Republican Senate, and we don't have leaders who honor their commitments. I will always tell the truth and do what I said I would do,” he added.
The indictment came weeks after Cruz launched a public broadside on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on the Senate floor. Cruz rose to deliver his remarks moments after McConnell had lined up a vote on the Export-Import Bank in the near future.
"It saddens me to say this. I sat in my office, I told my staff the majority leader looked me in the eye and looked 54 Republicans in the eye. I cannot believe he would tell a flat-out lie," Cruz said while McConnell was also on the floor. "We now know that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment that he is willing to say things that he knows are false."
His anti-Washington message has begun to resonate with voters. While a slew of opinion polls show Trump in the lead, Cruz has surged. In Monkey Survey online poll he earned 13 percent, second only to Trump.
Before leaving for the August recess, Cruz and other social conservatives threw down the gauntlet for Republican leaders, urging a government shutdown for over federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
McConnell took charge of the Senate in January vowing to return the body to “regular order” and preventing a repeat of the October 2013 government shutdown. While he has remained rather quiet in the face of repeated jabs from Cruz and other conservatives, McConnell offered a parting shot to Cruz before the Senate recessed for the summer: “There will not be a government shutdown.”
In fact, he said, “at some point we’ll negotiate the way forward” – meaning he was prepared to sit down with emissaries from the White House and Democrats on the Hill to negotiate a major budget deal to address the huge differences over spending policy.
His statement sets in motion the end game for 2016 appropriations that will play out in September. At issue is the level of funding for national defense versus the rest of the federal budget. The entire government is chafing under mandatory budget caps put in place four years ago to resolve a fiscal cliff standoff. The only question now is how to relieve those austere limits in a way that everyone can live with.
There is also the matter of a new highway bill and the need by October or November to raise the debt ceiling to avert a first-ever default on the U.S. debt.
If his polls number continue to climb, Cruz could be emboldened to push the shutdown fight, circumventing leadership altogether to rally a group of 40 to 50 conservative House members who might be able to block any spending deal.