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Why some Republican elites are suddenly saying they'd prefer Donald Trump over Ted Cruz

Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Who would the Republican Party prefer to have as its 2016 presidential nominee: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?

When this topic first came up in the waning months of 2015, many assumed the answer was simple. Obviously, the party's establishment would prefer Cruz — an ideological elected conservative, albeit a very extreme one — to a takeover by a loose cannon, ideologically heterodox billionaire. Indeed, Matt Yglesias argued in December that Cruz could be the GOP's "last best hope" of stopping Trump. And several leading voices on the right have just lent their voices to a National Review cover package aimed at stopping Trump.

But now several reports and public statements suggest just the opposite — that, believe it or not, at least some part of the Republican establishment actually is starting to prefer Trump to Cruz.

Part of this is an electability case. Though both men are believed to be highly unlikely to win a general election, and both hold hard-line immigration views likely to alienate Hispanics, there's at least the possibility that Trump could bring new disaffected white voters to the party. Cruz, on the other hand, would be limited to the existing far right — potentially at great cost to the party's down-ballot prospects. (Though one counterargument to this is that Trump's celebrity could mobilize Hispanics in particular and Democrats more generally to turn out against him in far greater numbers if he's on the ballot.)

But beyond that, the Trump/Cruz choice sheds a great deal of light on just what the Republican Party is. Because, as conceptualized in a great piece by the New York Times's Jonathan Martin, it seems to have resulted in a serious split.

Among intellectuals, commentators, and party actors devoted to advancing "conservatism" as an ideological project, Martin writes, Cruz seems vastly preferable to Trump. But for the more mercenary and pragmatic business and lobbying establishment, Trump seems like someone they could do business with, and Cruz seems like a dangerously inflexible ideologue.

The strange new respect for Trump from (some) GOP elites

The idea that the GOP would have to choose between just Trump and Cruz — both of whom, in the eyes of many, are highly likely to lose a general election — as their nominee would have seemed absurd, even unimaginable, just last summer.

Yet as every establishment-friendly candidate in the party's enormous field has stubbornly failed to catch on, and as Trump and Cruz remain the only candidates getting serious traction so far, many in the party are increasingly wondering whether they'll be stuck with one of those two.

And some are already letting their surprising preferences be known:

  • Card-carrying members of the GOP establishment like Bob Dole, Trent Lott, and Orrin Hatch have all come forward this week to make clear they'd prefer Trump to Cruz.
  • Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa is openly speaking out against Cruz — but not Trump — in the waning days before his state's first-in-the-nation caucuses.
  • National Review's Elaina Plott reported that "the developing feeling among House Republicans" is that a Trump nomination would be better than a Cruz one.
  • Romney 2012 aide Spencer Zwick recently "said power brokers and financiers are now trying to cozy up to Trump in various ways," according to the Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Robert Costa.
  • The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim and Sam Stein report that Republican leaders "are moving toward Trump" because they "viscerally, unashamedly loathe Cruz."

CNN's Theodore Schleifer went against the grain in finding that "a small and growing number" of establishment Republicans were "coming to terms with the idea" that Cruz "may be palatable." But as you can see, most of the reports and public statements have seemed to incline toward Trump so far (though, of course, this is still quite early, and the balance of opinion could certainly shift).

This has come as a shocker to many analysts. It's long been known that Ted Cruz racked up an astounding number of bitter Republican enemies in his three years in Washington, and that most of his colleagues in Congress truly despise him. But he is still a former Bush administration official and an actual Republican politician who serves in the Senate. Furthermore, he's been devoted to the conservative movement for many years.

Trump, meanwhile, is a complete outsider who doesn't seem to hold any particular ideology, instead frequently changing his positions from year to year according to what benefits him. His intemperate rhetoric embarrasses many party elites, and some of his policies are out-and-out racist.

So why in the world would GOP bigwigs float falling behind him?

Are ideologues and intellectuals opting for Cruz, while lobbyists and pragmatists back Trump?

Like many parties, the GOP is in one sense a coalition representing various interests, but in another sense it's trying to promote an ideological set of policies — and there can be tensions when ideology and interest clash.

That's why, to my mind, the most helpful piece at sussing out this confusion has come from the Times's Martin. His analysis posits a split between two different parts of the broad "Republican establishment," as follows:

  • "Conservative intellectuals" — or "the Republicans who dominate the right-leaning magazines, journals and political groups," in Martin's parlance (and to which I'd also add some far-right elected officials, commentators like Glenn Beck, and major religious right leaders like James Dobson) — think that a Trump nomination would shatter conservatism and destroy the intellectual foundations of their party. Cruz, meanwhile, is admittedly quite far right, but he is definitely an orthodox conservative.
  • But, Martin continues, "the cadre of Republican lobbyists, operatives and elected officials based in Washington" fear that the ideological Cruz could "curtail their influence and access," and see Trump as someone they could do business with ("longtime Washington hands envision him operating as a pragmatist").

While still somewhat anecdotal, this makes sense to me. Bob Dole, Trent Lott, and Orrin Hatch have never been known for their commitment to ideological conservatism. They are Washington operators first and foremost. And since Cruz arrived in the Senate three years ago, he's done the most to interfere with the way Washington works — most famously when he helped cause a government shutdown in 2013, but also on a variety of lower-profile issues, in which he's stoked controversies intended to make him look more conservative than his Republican seatmates.

In Iowa, too, Cruz has infuriated the state's Republican establishment — this time with his opposition to federal ethanol mandates (which, of course, fits with his pro-market conservative ideology). Indeed, Gov. Branstad's son is the Iowa director of a pro-ethanol group that handed out anti-Cruz flyers outside several Cruz events I attended in Iowa recently. Trump, meanwhile, has recently gone out of his way to make it clear that he loves ethanol very very much:

While Trump is a newcomer to politics, he's been a member of the GOP donor class in good standing for decades now. He knows how things work, and while he often argues to voters that he can't be bought, people are skeptical that he actually believes some of the extreme stuff he says. Sure, he's a man who believes in nothing but himself — but couldn't much of the GOP's business and lobbying class, out to enrich themselves and their clients, be described that way too?

It's increasingly looking like Republicans will have to make this difficult choice

All of this could prove to be laughably premature. It's still possible that Iowa or New Hampshire could elevate some non-Trump, non-Cruz candidate to prominence — someone who would be a far better fit for the GOP intellectual and lobbying class alike. But it hasn't happened yet, and the clock is ticking.

Additionally, the GOP will have to consider all this alongside Trump and Cruz's electability — and alongside the even juicier question of whether Republicans would even want nominee Trump or nominee Cruz to win at all. (Martin suggests that some Republicans would prefer a Trump loss over "turning [the party] over to Mr. Cruz for at least four years.")

Furthermore, it's unclear whether Republican elites' preferences of Trump over Cruz (or vice versa) would even matter. They've had vanishingly little effect on how the GOP contest has gone so far, after all.

Still, if it turns out that Republican voters will only really go for Trump or Cruz, elites will have to decide how to use what little influence they may still have. And the outcome could determine whether the face of today's GOP is that of an ideologically conservative true believer and warrior, or a man whose only ideology is that of Donald J. Trump.

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