And Then There Were Two

After frenetic battle, Establishment is vanquished — and two outsiders fight on

by Ashley Pratte | Updated 16 Mar 2016 at 10:19 AM

The nine-month circus that is the Republican presidential race is coming to a close, as the field has been slashed from 17 at the beginning to just two after Tuesday’s primaries.

In a campaign cycle that has been full of surprises, no one would have expected the final two standing would be a billionaire-turned-entertainer and a junior senator who has built his career on a crusade against Washington. The Establishment fell one by one until just two outsider candidates were left.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump trounced Sen. Marco Rubio in his home state — so badly the Florida senator announced he was suspending his campaign — and Gov. John Kasich pulled out an expected win in his home state of Ohio, with Trump a strong second. But even with his victory in his home state, Kasich lacks a path forward, as he trails in delegates and now has won only a single state.

The race in Missouri was too close to call late Tuesday night, but Trump also won Illinois and North Carolina handily, with Cruz second in each. Yet while the race is now down to just Trump and Cruz, it will still be a long haul to secure 1,237 delegates — and neither may ultimately get there.

As it stands now, Cruz has won a total of eight states — enough to meet the threshold to qualify for the nomination at the GOP convention in July, according to the current rules. But the catch of the rule is that the winner of the state needs to secure a majority of the delegates. So far, Cruz has won a majority of the delegates in four out of the eight states he has won. While in recent weeks Cruz has been able to secure a consensus around his campaign as the only candidate to beat Trump, his numbers are still well short of what's needed to even qualify.

Pluses and Minuses

On the plus side, Cruz is second to the billionaire businessman in delegates and has been able to rack up wins in closed primaries — a weakness for Trump. The Texas senator has even garnered some noteworthy endorsements as the race tightens, such as former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, Sen. Mike Lee and radio talk show host Mark Levin.

But Cruz’s path isn’t clear. He has focused on states that other candidates are largely ignoring and is locking his sights on Utah, which has 40 delegates, in order to continue his momentum. But with just 200-plus delegates of the 1,000 or so left to doled out winner-take-all, both candidates are likely to add to their piles as the race continues, throwing the race into greater chaos.

Cruz has arguably the strongest ground game in the GOP field and has a well-funded campaign — two things that will be important going into a head-to-head match-up with Trump. The key moving forward is for Cruz to paint himself as a principled outsider while pegging Trump as part of the Establishment. But he needs to be careful if the Establishment throws its support to him in an effort to thwart Trump -- the Establishment of so far getting crushed in Campaign 2016.

States Won By Cruz and Trump
Donald Trump
New Hampshire
South Carolina
Sen. Ted Cruz
Source: The Associated Press

What Now?

Will Establishment support go to Cruz? In recent weeks, there has been a warming toward Cruz as the viable option to Trump as Rubio and Kasich increasingly lacked a pathway toward the nomination, forcing the Establishment to get behind an outsider like Cruz. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, someone who has made his ire for Cruz public, now says the party may need to come together to support him.

What’s more, Neil Bush, Jeb’s brother, has joined Cruz’s presidential campaign as part of his finance team.

Even though former 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that he would support Rubio, Cruz or Kasich — or whoever appeared to have the best chances of defeating Trump after March 15 — he was campaigning for both Rubio and Kasich. Maybe now that will change.

To be clear, Romney’s ultimate goal in this election is to stir up a divided convention, which is exactly why he has advocated for anti-Trump voters to support the best candidate to compete against Trump in the remaining contests.

But with Rubio making he wise decision to get out of the race, where will his delegates go? If the Florida senator truly believes that Trump shouldn’t be the nominee of the Republican Party, then he would need to throw them Cruz’s way. If Cruz were ultimately to receive the support of the delegates of both Kasich and Rubio, he would then be best positioned to prevent Trump from receiving the necessary 1,237 delegates.

As the Trump train presses on full steam ahead there’s only one thing that could derail it: The stalwart conservative, Ted Cruz. Game on.

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