In order to understand what happened to Ted Cruz last night, it’s important to remember where he once hoped to be by Super Tuesday. In his original plan to win the nomination, Cruz would win Iowa — check — and then South Carolina. Maybe Nevada, too. With three early states won, he’d be primed to sweep the South on Tuesday. He’d lean even more heavily into his Christian persona. He’d eat a lot of biscuits and gravy and barbecue. He’d get the Duck Commander’s endorsement. And once he swept the South on Super Tuesday, winning Texas with a majority of the popular vote, he’d be on his way to the general.
Cruz held his Super Tuesday party at Houston’s Redneck Country Club, the domain of Houston conservative shock jock Michael Berry. It’s a venue kitted out with sports and gun swag, and where the centerpiece is a custom-built replica of the Dukes of Hazzard’s car, General Lee, complete with Confederate flag paint job. Is this a strange place for a Harvard and Princeton educated Cuban-Canadian constitutional lawyer whose rise to the senate was financed by New York investment banks to spend time? Yes, sort of, but it’s on cue with the campaign’s branding: Cruz is one of you. One of us. He’s the new good ol’ boy.
What actually happened to Cruz last night? He had a good night! Bad outcomes would have included losing Texas, or only winning Texas and no other states. But he won Texas by a healthy amount, some 17 points. And he won Oklahoma and Alaska, and picked up delegates in many other states. Trump now has about a quarter of the delegates needed to win the nomination, some 320 out of 1237. Cruz has about 225, and Rubio, who won his first state in Minnesota, has 105.
But while the hundreds of people who made the Redneck Country Club their home last night treated the night as a great win, cheering and hoisting red solo cups into the air upon the reception of good news, it’s also a night that showed Cruz strangely off-track with his original plan. And it was a pretty great night for Trump as well.
Trump’s taken most of the early states, and it’s Trump who has swept the South, winning Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia by huge margins Tuesday night — Arkansas was closer, but it tilted in his favor too. Bizarrely, he’s simultaneously swept the northeast — Massachusetts and Vermont — something Republican candidates often have trouble doing at the same time. Trump neutered the Duck Commander’s endorsement with the endorsement of his son — a dynasty divided — and then snagged the endorsement of the head of NASCAR.
Where, or to what regions of the country, does Cruz go from here? He won a huge delegate pool in Texas, and successfully kept Rubio from breaking the 20 percent he’d need to grab his own delegates there. (According to one preliminary delegate count, Rubio’s only two delegates came one each from Texas’ richest congressional districts in west Houston and northeast Dallas.)
Cruz doubled his delegate total in his home state. But he has no big states coming up that are likely to be as favorable to him, and Oklahoma and Alaska, though they’re nice wins, don’t really point to success elsewhere. In a few days, Kentucky and Louisiana and Maine will vote, full of white resentment and likely to be big Trump states. Cruz’s best chance is possibly Kansas, but he needs to do better than that.
Still, the mood was celebratory at the Redneck Country Club last night. A swathe of Texas lawmakers showed up, including Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and state senators Brian Birdwell, Donna Campbell, Paul Bettencourt, Brandon Creighton, and Lois Kolkhorst plus former Governor Rick Perry to boot. Liquor flowed freely and Cruz fans huddled around a fireplace, out by that car painted with the Confederate flag.
There was country music to tide people over until the speeches, which came pretty late in the night. Trump had scheduled a lengthy victory press conference at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate. When Rubio spoke early, to claim a victory-less victory — he hadn’t yet won Minnesota — Fox News, playing on dozens of TV screens around the Redneck Country Club, kept a split screen up on the empty stage, just in case Trump came on. Cruz had to wait until Trump’s lengthy press conference was over and The Donald, followed by his House Elf Chris Christie, had exited the stage to begin, lest the media ignore him.
“We told Donald Trump,” Dan Patrick said, introducing the Texas senator, “Don’t! Mess! With Texas!” Cruz was “the only one” who could unite the party, he said.
Who’s going to be president, Patrick demanded? Ted Cruz, shouted the crowd. “I want it loud enough so that they can hear it all the way in the Fox studio in New York,” he said, irate that the network had been so Trump-lovey tonight. Ted Cruz, shouted the crowd. Fox didn’t get to hear the taunt: Patrick was muted on-screen.
Cruz, when he finally got going, had two pointed messages. One: Marco? Take a minute to think on it, pray on it, and get the fuck out. “We began with 17 Republican candidates,” Cruz said, a field that had narrowed over time. “Tonight was another decision point, and the voters have spoken.” It was time for the others to give it up, for party unity. He prayed they would think on it. Cruz wasn’t waiting for Rubio to acknowledge defeat, though. He was going to treat this as a two-man race, and he was going to wage that fight by making strong, ideological distinctions between himself and Trump: “Donald Trump supports Planned Parenthood.” “Donald Trump promises to compromise with Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer on supreme court nominees.” “I will never compromise away our right to keep and bear arms.” “Donald Trump pledges to be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians. I will stand unapologetically with the nation of Israel.” “Donald Trump says he would try to keep in place the Iranian nuclear deal.”
It would have been nearly impossible to miss the message: Cruz is the real conservative, and Trump is a secret liberal, a moderate. The problem with this is that Trump fans don’t like him because of his policy positions. Trump has no policy positions. They like him because they want a strong national father who will care for them and take care of the problems.
After his Super Tuesday sweeps, Trump is clearly making the calculation that he has the nomination more or less wrapped up, and he’s beginning a turn to the center. There was no reason for him, as he did at the Houston debate, to (sort of) embrace Planned Parenthood — you’d think that would hurt him. But he’s starting to stake out some positions and some rhetoric that places him closer to the center, and he did so again last night. Is he doing it too early? Does it present an opening for Cruz? Possibly. But it could also mean that Cruz does Trump’s work for him over the next few months by forcibly arguing that Trump is less right-wing than voters have been lead to believe.
Meanwhile, Rubio’s solo victory means that he’ll stay in for a while, and Kasich’s in until Ohio votes on March 15. So the field is not, probably, winnowing anytime soon. Tuesday night makes Cruz the Republican Party’s foremost non-Trump, but think about it this way: So far, the Republican Party is the Titanic, and a Trump nomination is the iceberg. Cruz, Rubio, Kasich and Carson are the deck chairs.