Ted Cruz went ham on Mitch McConnell on Monday.
“Mitch would rather be leader than have a Republican majority,” Cruz said on his podcast. “If there’s a Republican who can win who’s not going to support Mitch, the truth of the matter is he’d rather the Democrat win.”
Which, well, whoa!
Cruz has also been part of a small group of Republican senators pushing to delay leadership elections until after the December 6 runoff in Georgia. Asked Tuesday by CNN whether he would back McConnell as Senate GOP leader, he declined to answer.
How to explain Cruz’s rhetoric about McConnell? Easy. It’s politics.
Cruz has made no secret of his political ambitions. He finished as the runner-up to Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Although he and Trump ended that race on acrimonious terms – Trump falsely alleged that Cruz’s father might have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and attacked his wife – Cruz eventually endorsed Trump and became one of the former president’s most stalwart defenders in the Senate.
The lesson Cruz learned in that evolving relationship with Trump is that the Republican base absolutely loves the former president and has zero interest in a candidate who opposes him. (Whether that calculus has changed since a disappointing midterm election result for Republicans remains to be seen.)
And so, Cruz has hewed as closely to Trump as possible over these past few years – as he tries to make amends for the ill will from the 2016 race.
When you see Cruz’s over-the-top reaction to the 2022 elections – and the quickness with which he blamed McConnell – through that Trump lens, things start to make more sense.
Trump has been an unrelenting in his criticism – and bullying – of McConnell in the wake of the midterm elections.
“It’s Mitch McConnell’s fault,” Trump wrote in a post on his Truth Social website after Democrats secured control of the Senate. “He blew the midterms, and everyone despises him.”
And as CNN recently reported, Trump is pressuring his allies to blame McConnell, too:
“In phone calls with allies, elected officials and incoming members of Congress, the former President has accused McConnell of spending recklessly in states where Republicans faced significant headwinds at the expense of candidates in more competitive contests.”
Cruz, then, is simply following Trump’s instructions. He knows – because he can count – that no one is going to beat McConnell in the election for Senate Republican leader. But that isn’t what really matters to Cruz.
What does matter is virtue-signaling to the Trump base that he thinks McConnell has done a poor job – and that he is angry about it.
It’s also worth noting that the animosity between Cruz and McConnell is not new. McConnell was openly frustrated when Cruz forced a government shutdown in 2013 over then-President Barack Obama’s health care law – a strategy that the GOP leader viewed as utterly selfish and counter-productive to the party’s broader efforts.
Trump is widely expected to announce his third bid for president on Tuesday night. It’s hard to see there being space for the Texas senator in a field that includes the former president and maybe (likely?) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But Cruz could well be angling to be in the vice-presidential mix if Trump winds up as GOP nominee in 2024. Either way, Cruz is placing a bet that being firmly in the Trump camp (rather than the McConnell camp) will pay future political dividends for him.