Insiders: Ted Cruz hurt most by Trump candidacy
Insiders say Donald Trump is a candidate who is as uncompromising as Cruz on hot-button issues like immigration — and can deliver the message with even more fiery rhetoric.
Donald Trump’s turn in the national spotlight is mainly taking a toll on Ted Cruz, the Texas firebrand running as an uncompromising, anti-establishment conservative.
That’s the assessment of this week’s POLITICO Caucus, our weekly survey of the leading strategists, activists and political operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Roughly a third of Iowa and New Hampshire Republican insiders pointed to Cruz as the candidate who is damaged the most in their states by Trump’s rise in the polls and emergence as a media-grabbing protest candidate.
“The Trump Circus is no doubt having the biggest impact on Ted Cruz. Cruz, the incumbent proxy for the disaffected GOP “Hell No!” Caucus, has been virtually starved of oxygen since Trump entered the race,” said an Iowa Republican, who, like all POLITICO Caucus participants, was granted anonymity in order to speak freely.
“Cruz needs to consolidate the rage-against-the-machine, anti-establishment block of Caucus votes (both the harder-edged evangelicals and tea party types) as his Iowa Caucus foundation upon which to build,” said another Iowa Republican. “Trump is sucking all the oxygen out of the room. While I seriously doubt most of those folks will ultimately caucus for Trump, his message is scratching their anti-establishment itch at a time when Cruz needs to start showing some momentum.”
In New Hampshire, where Chris Christie’s hopes are riding on a strong finish, roughly a quarter of Republicans believe the brash and straight-talking New Jersey governor is also put at risk by Trump’s emergence in the field.
“Christie is the “tell it like it is” candidate, but he certainly can’t hang with Trump in that regard,” a Granite State Republican said. “Without the oxygen of a niche, Christie is rudderless and grasping at straws.”
“Christie has placed all his eggs in New Hampshire’s basket, but Trump is right now occupying the “tell it like it is” lane with gusto,” added another New Hampshire Republican. “Same thing with Ted Cruz. If you’re a voter looking for the most conservative alternative, it’s hard to see you landing anywhere but Trump.”
Republicans in both states are also fretting that the controversial real estate mogul is tainting their party — and Democrats agree: more than one-third of Democrats viewed Trump as a problem for the entire GOP field, as opposed to a single candidate.
“He is damaging our brand,” said an Iowa Republican, who said Trump is hurting all of the GOP candidates.
Yet it’s Cruz, the Texas senator, who is seen by insiders as particularly damaged by Trump’s ascendancy because the real estate mogul has emerged as a candidate who is equally steadfast on hot-button issues like immigration — and he can deliver the message with more heated rhetoric. That gives him an advantage with the hardest-right pockets of the GOP base, insiders said, who might otherwise naturally align with Cruz.
Several Caucus participants expected that Trump will push the immigration debate further to the right for those candidates who rely on the support of the staunchest conservative activists. “Watch for other candidates to step up their rhetoric or continue to be crushed by Trump in the polls,” predicted one Iowa Republican.
So far, the Texas senator is the only candidate in the GOP field to make overtures to Trump: the two had a meeting on Wednesday at Trump Tower, where they dished about other Republican contenders. Cruz has also been by far Trump’s biggest defender among the Republicans running for president, refusing to condemn several of Trump’s more incendiary statements on immigration, and instead praising him more broadly for raising the issue. That relationship could also come in handy for Cruz in the event support for Trump’s bid collapses and his backers look for another lightning rod conservative candidate to get behind.
A handful of participants noted that Trump distracted from Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who announced his presidential bid this week and leads in Iowa polls.
Walker is “barely registering in voters’ minds because The Donald is such a compelling blend of hair, media catnip, and voter rage” even during his announcement week, said one Iowa Republican.
Trump and Walker “are both in the state today, and every local reporter is more interested in covering [Trump] than Walker,” observed a New Hampshire Democrat.
In any case, Democrats are enjoying watching Trump effect on the GOP primary from afar.
“If you had told me in 2013 there would be a conservative politician more egomaniacal, bombastic, or revolting to Democrats than Ted Cruz, I would have laughed in your face. Turns out the joke is on the Republican Party, as Trump has made Cruz seem like just another underwhelming senator with no record of achievement,” said a New Hampshire Democrat.
Here are two other takeaways from this week’s POLITICO Caucus:
Hillary Clinton’s field organization is strong…
Asked to assess what Clinton is doing right, and wrong, in their states, almost every Caucus participant — Democrats and Republicans — answered the question of what she’s doing right by saying Clinton has pulled together a strong staff and is doing all of the little things right when it comes to being organized for the early state contests and beyond.
“Doing right: building and investing in a monster field operation. Scares the hell out of this Republican knowing that many of those staff will easily pivot to organizing for the general election,” an Iowa Republican said.
“HRC is building a campaign rooted in organizing,” added a New Hampshire Democrat. “I’ve been to several house parties & campaign events and there are always new faces present — faces that weren’t involved in the 2012 presidential race. There is absolutely no one taking this primary race for granted whatsoever.”
“The organizing strategy is straight out of the Obama 2007 playbook,” an Iowa Democrat added. “The crew is enthusiastic and well-trained on the basics (pledge cards, pledge cards, pledge cards). Sanders and O’Malley will find it impossible to compete with the sheer size of the organizing.”
In New Hampshire, in particular, Democrats also largely lauded Clinton for visiting more rural parts of the state that are often overlooked. And across the board, her staff was praised for keeping cool amid the rise of Bernie Sanders.
…but she seems inaccessible, and her approach to the media is part of that.
Democrats and Republicans both said there is a perception that Clinton is inaccessible — both to voters and reporters — and she needs to start showing up, unscripted, in the field more often.
New Hampshire Caucus members on both sides of the aisle pointed to a much-publicized Fourth of July weekend parade incident in which reporters were roped off and held back from the candidate during a Clinton swing through New Hampshire. That was an avoidable problem that instead became a big distraction, insiders said.
“Roping the press on the day we celebrate our nation’s freedoms was not too bright and the latest in the cringe-worthy moments that have dogged the campaign since its start,” a New Hampshire Democrat said.
A Granite State Republican said the “optics with the rope line were ridiculous.”
Clinton “needs to take some concrete steps to counter the media narrative that she is somehow shutting them out of the process and that this is a departure from the way presidential campaigns are normally run,” warned another New Hampshire Democrat. “Voters might start believing this even though it is more a case of her campaign trying to control its own narrative and not ceding it to the national media such that they are forced to incessantly talk about State Department emails, the Clinton Foundation, etc. rather than issues she wants to connect with voters on.”
In recent days, the campaign has taken steps to appear more open to the press, including granting tours of Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters.
Insiders also said she needs to allow voters to feel that they are spending quality time with her — something early-staters expect and require. One Iowa Democrat described her as a “candidate who seems allergic to real human interaction.” Several said it’s time for Clinton to start hosting bigger events, both to boost enthusiasm levels and to ensure that more people get to see her.
“She’s not creating real opportunities to interact with voters. She’s stiff and her events are contrived and overly stage-managed. Iowans (and Granite Staters) can smell a phony campaign that uses them as props,” an Iowa Republican charged. “That’s what Hillary’s campaign is.”