One year ago this week, Ted Cruz became the first of 17 candidates to argue that he could unite the Republican Party behind him.
Now, he has his a chance to prove it.
On the anniversary of a presidential launch that knew nothing of a man by the name of Donald Trump, contests and converts won of late will offer the clearest signal yet of whether he can indeed consolidate the anti-Trump movement and eventually defeat the billionaire front-runner.
Cruz is favored to win this Tuesday’s caucuses in Utah and is hopeful of sweeping the state’s 40 delegates by eclipsing the 50% threshold needed to take them all home. And while Cruz’s campaign says Trump has a large lead in the early vote in winner-take-all Arizona, which also votes Tuesday, Cruz’s aides are projecting confidence that they can gain on Trump by then.
Establishment Republicans, once expected to be the demon of Cruz’s White House ambitions, are increasingly coming around. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and a Mormon, said he will vote for Cruz on Tuesday. And former presidential foe Lindsey Graham will host a fundraiser for him.
If Cruz is able to notch a powerful showing in those two states, it could reset the narrative of Trump’s inevitability as the pace of primaries and caucuses slows considerably in the spring.
“Every week is important, but this one is especially important given the time-sensitive nature of conservatives rallying around Ted,” said Cruz communications director Alice Stewart.
“It’s going to be key that he wins some of these winner-take-all primaries to slow Trump down, but I think this week can be the week that happens,” said David McIntosh, the head of the Club for Growth, one of the main anti-Trump advocacy groups. “It’ll show that it’s still possible to have someone other than Trump.”
Cruz officials are trying to emphasize the damage they feel Trump would do the GOP, even seeking to use protests at Trump protests to their advantage.
“People are recognizing what a disaster Trump would be if he were the nominee,” Stewart argues, adding unsolicited, “These protests are an indication of what we would see in the general election if — heaven forbid — he were the nominee.”
But even a sweep Tuesday would not put Cruz on a glide path to the nomination — he would have to win a huge majority of the remaining delegates to earn 1,237 by the time Republicans gather for their national convention in Cleveland.
What about Kasich?
While it is closer to a two-man race than it has ever been, John Kasich has signaled no willingness to leave the race, a roadblock that angers many of Cruz’s backers and donors. Kasich has made an aggressive play in Utah on the ground and on television, a move that likely will give Trump more delegates and pave his path to the magic number.
“I’m of the camp that Kasich is running for vice president — and he doesn’t care if it’s Trump or Cruz or Sanders or Hillary,” said Nate Bachman, a Cruz contributor from Kasich’s Ohio who is part of the donor network organized by Charles and David Koch.
Yet Bachman said he feels “not real well” about Cruz’s overall chances: “I just don’t see a path for him — especially with Kasich blocking him.”
Other donors share in the considerable angst about Kasich, with Cruz himself this weekend dubbing the Ohio governor — who has no mathematical shot at winning the nomination before the convention — a “spoiler.” His campaign, however has been slow to otherwise attack Kasich. Cruz on Saturday declined to answer when asked by reporters whether the governor was a “conservative.”
Benefits of Rubio’s departure
“We would be shocked if he didn’t do much better than 50%,” said Utah GOP Vice Chairman Phill Wright, who is helming Cruz’s campaign in the state. “We’re very confident — especially with Marco Rubio out of the race.”
It is Rubio’s exit that has Cruz’s Houston headquarters excited.
“We’re the ones answering the phones. People are reaching out to us,” Stewart says, “The trend and the momentum is moving to Ted. People are responding.”
Rubio’s departure has caused some establishment figures, such as Romney, to give Cruz a fresh look.
Graham joked about Cruz’s murder only three weeks ago, but on Monday in Washington, he will hold a fundraiser for Cruz’s campaign, a jaw-dropping reversal explained not by a newfound appreciation for a man who once shut down the government, but a recognition, Graham said, that only Cruz could topple Trump.
Other Rubio surrogates are following suit, such as conservative Arizona congressman Matt Salmon, who on Sunday said he would choose Cruz. Salmon’s home state is likely to break for Trump, who has the backing of the border state’s most prominent anti-immigration hardliners, such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
“We’re going to have a very good night in Utah. Arizona is much tighter,” Cruz said in Phoenix on Friday. “Donald did well in early voting in Arizona. We’re surging now. Our numbers are going up and up and up.”
After Tuesday, the Republican calendar slows to a crawl, with only two contests over the next month: Wisconsin and New York.
The Badger State on April 5 in particular is expected to be ground zero for the forces hoping to stop Trump, with McIntosh saying his group is planning a large ad buy in the state. And the Club is even considering not just anti-Trump advertising for the remainder, but pro-Cruz spots as well.
McIntosh said that Cruz could even begin to make inroads with the Republicans who flocked to Trump’s campaign and refused to let go.
“People who really do not want to have a Trump nominee are OK with Cruz,” McIntosh said, “and you’re seeing the Trump voters saying they’re OK with him, too.”