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CLEVELAND — For the first time in 36 years, there was a vote on the floor of a party’s nominating convention this past Monday that actually held an element of suspense.
In the hour or so ahead of a vote in which insurgents were attempting to reset the convention rules, Republican National Committee operatives circulated the floor and the back halls of Quicken Loans Arena, buttonholing delegates to argue why they should retract support for the motion, and getting them to sign their names to withdrawal forms. Trump aides, by contrast, bullied delegates with vague and ineffective threats.
In one corner of the arena floor, near CNN’s broadcast booth, delegates from the District of Columbia listened to appeals from high-ranking RNC officials.
The RNC’s argument to the D.C. delegates boiled down to this: A vote for the rules reset would open the door to Ted Cruz becoming the GOP’s nominee four years from now.
Cruz is already laying the groundwork for another run for president in 2020, but a top RNC official told Yahoo News that they expect him to run even if Donald Trump becomes president this fall. That would represent the first major challenge of an incumbent president from inside his own party since Teddy Kennedy ran against President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
“If Trump wins, you better bet your ass Cruz is going to primary him,” the RNC official told Yahoo News.
And so the RNC officials told D.C. delegates that a rules reset would open the door to an effort by a key Cruz ally, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, to close primary contests in several states to independent and Democratic voters. Cuccinelli and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, pushed for the closed primary in the convention rules committee meeting last week.
Closed primaries would exclude independents and limit the nomination process to registered Republicans, a more conservative voting group overall, which would favor Cruz.
The RNC official told D.C. delegates that they had signed on to “a movement by Mike Lee and Ken Cuccinelli and Ted Cruz to further close the primary system, as it relates to 2020.”
Two out of 11 D.C. delegates who were in favor of resetting the rules on Monday eventually withdrew their support for the measure, and that was enough to move the 19-member delegation’s support for the measure. The RNC accomplished this in three other states as well, and took the overall number of states in favor below the threshold of seven required to force the floor vote.
It’s not clear how much the argument against Cruz swayed the two D.C. delegates — there were other elements at play as well — but the fact that such an argument about Cruz was even made shows the odd circumstances that surround Cruz’s appearance on the convention stage Wednesday night to give a primetime speech.
Trump has gained the nomination, but even some of his strongest backers within the party concede they are not sure how he would govern as president. Cruz is attempting to establish himself as the leader for traditional conservatives, lying in wait no matter how things play out in November.
Cruz has not even endorsed Trump, though he is now under pressure from allies and supporters to support the GOP nominee. Even Cuccinelli told Politico he’s going to vote for Trump now. And two other 2016 candidates speaking Wednesday night — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who will be there in person, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who’ll appear via video link — have offered support for Trump, though it is weak. It is the ultimate example on Trump’s part of holding your friends close and your enemies closer.
Cruz would not be alone in withholding an endorsement. Among other 2016 Republican candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has not endorsed, nor has former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
However, many of the older religious conservatives who are politically active — the kind who were with Cruz over Rubio in the primary — have swallowed their distaste for Trump and jumped on board.
Cruz’s decision earlier this month to speak here at the convention was his own attempt to make the most of a bad situation. Trump savaged Cruz in the most personal terms in the later stages of their primary fight, repeatedly calling him “Lyin’ Ted,” retweeting a person who ridiculed the physical appearance of Cruz’s wife, and alleging a wild and irresponsible conspiracy theory that Cruz’s father helped Harvey Lee Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
But by accepting a speaking slot, Cruz put himself in position to be in Cleveland and in possession of credentials to get into the arena in case a delegate revolt succeeded. And his camp was involved, according to multiple sources, in a discussion about having Cruz propose that Walker run as an alternative against Trump ahead of the rules committee vote last week, which would have set off chaos. Cruz’s adviser Jeff Roe vetoed the idea, according to one source. A Cruz adviser did not respond to a request for comment.
Cruz’s speech will be one of the most closely watched of this convention, precisely because of all the intrigue. He is a Trump enemy, speaking at Trump’s coronation.
There have been some signs of an uneasy detente. Trump adviser Paul Manafort has hired former Cruz lieutenant Jason Miller, whose presence in the Trump campaign has facilitated better communications between the two worlds and could be a way to ease tensions over time.
But not all that much. Cruz received 475 delegate votes on the floor Tuesday night, as Trump clinched the nomination with 1,725 delegate votes. And as Eliana Johnson wrote in National Review, Cruz will likely be seeking in his speech to persuade the delegates, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976 when speaking at the GOP convention after narrowly losing to President Gerald Ford, that the party “had chosen the wrong man.”
Cruz is betting that he will have a better chance in 2020 of becoming the nominee by appearing as a sanctioned speaker here than he would have if he had gambled on galvanizing anti-Trump sentiment this year and making a run at a convention coup. It may be wise, but it also may be the same mistake New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made in 2012, when he passed on his best shot at the presidency, thinking 2016 would be set up even better for him.
Circumstances change. Other figures rise. And as Roe himself told Bloomberg News, “Leaders don’t pick movements, movements pick leaders.”