Last weekend was a good one for Texas' Canadian-born junior senator, Ted Cruz. He won caucuses in Kansas and Maine — Cruz's chief rival, Donald Trump, did note that Cruz likely did well in Maine because it was "close to Canada" — and finished closer than expected to Trump in the Louisiana primary and Kentucky's caucuses. Combined with dismal showings by Marco Rubio in every territory that voted except Puerto Rico, Cruz's stepping up means he is the most conceivable challenger to Trump's marching to the GOP's presidential nomination, despite the fact that he is almost completely disliked by his Senate colleagues and would be the most conservative Republican presidential nominee since at least Barry Goldwater. He's cut Trump's delegate lead to about 100 and, with Trump's momentum seemingly slowed, piled up enough delegates himself (300 according to the latest count from The New York Times) to begin dreaming about accumulating the 1,237 needed to win the Republican nomination on the first ballot.
"The conventional wisdom now is that Marco Rubio will not win Florida. It's either going to go to Trump or Cruz," Richard E. Berg-Andersson, the founder of the venerable The Green Papers political process blog says. "Cruz has caught up a little bit. He's in the mix. If Rubio loses Florida, especially if Cruz can win Florida and get all of those winner-take-all delegates, then obviously Cruz will be on his way to potentially winning the nomination."
Over the last week, Keep the Promise I, one of the four primary super PACs spending money in support of Cruz, has begun pouring cash into Florida, buying Rubio-bashing ads. Three days ago, the Cruz campaign proper announced that it was opening 10 offices in the state. Pundits have speculated that Cruz might simply be trying to ensure Rubio takes an embarrassing hit in his home state, but Berg-Andersson says that Cruz also likely thinks he can win the primary and its 99 delegates himself. If Cruz can manage that, Rubio will face pressure to get out of the race, and Cruz will be well on his way to erasing Trump's early delegate lead.
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If Cruz were to score a big win in Florida on March 15, Berg-Andersson suggested the 2016 race could begin to parallel the 1976 GOP contest, which saw Ronald Reagan lose a stack of early primaries to Gerald Ford before finally knocking off the incumbent president in North Carolina. Reagan went on to win primaries across the West and South over the late spring, leading to a contested first ballot at that summer's convention. Ford, thanks largely to some political maneuvering by the Mississippi delegation, hung on to win a majority, but Reagan had set himself up strongly for his subsequent successful presidential run in 1980.
Because non-Cruz/Trump candidates hold almost 200 pledged delegates, Berg-Andersson says it is conceivable, though unlikely, that no candidate would hold a majority heading into the GOP July convention in Cleveland. That situation would create chaos, but it likely wouldn't benefit Cruz, he says. Cruz has to do his idol Reagan one better, Berg-Andersson says, because the senator isn't the type of candidate who would win a floor fight.
The most likely scenario, at least to Berg-Andersson, is that Trump, the current front-runner, staggers across the line with a majority thanks to the western and northeastern states left on the calendar that may be inhospitable to Cruz's ultra-conservative, borderline theocratic message. Cruz can still pull it off, he says, but he's got to get things down to a two-person race and then get lucky.