In Colorado, Cruz hints at how Republicans might pivot – hardly at all

LOVELAND, Colo. – Standing in front of someone else’s banner last week, looking out at signs that read “Lion Ted” and “We Love Cruz,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, picked up where he had left off. The election, he said, was about “jobs, freedom, and security” – just as he’d said when he was running for president earlier this year. It was not just about electing Republicans.

“If, God forbid, Hillary wins this thing – and I pray that she does not – we desperately need a Republican Senate to check the president,” Cruz said Wednesday at the first of three events for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Darryl Glenn of Colorado. “If the Republican nominee wins the presidency, we still need a Republican Senate to check the president, because that’s the constitutional responsibility of the Senate, whether the president is Democrat or Republican.”

Over 22 minutes in Loveland, and 24 more minutes in Denver, Cruz never mentioned Donald Trump, whom he had finally endorsed one month earlier. In between those events, Cruz told The Washington Post that if his party held the Senate, there was “long historical precedent for a Supreme Court with fewer justices.”

Like other rising stars – House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) – who were felled or humbled by Trump, the runner-up for the Republican nomination was bidding to be the leader of the opposition. His argument, and the ones made by the candidates he stumped for in Colorado, hinted at how Republicans might pivot from 2016 by changing as little as possible.

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Cruz’s visit to Colorado was one of three Senate campaign swings he scheduled for October. He hit Nevada for Rep. Joseph Heck, who is running for the seat being vacated by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid; Cruz will campaign for Missouri’s Sen. Roy Blunt next.

At each stop, Cruz largely echoed the message of all Republicans ducking the Trump tornado, assuring conservatives that the country wanted to elect them. He compared the release of impounded Iranian money, a part of the nuclear deal, to Democrats walking duffel bags of $20 bills to a bank. When one supporter’s errant elbow turned off the lights in Loveland’s Embassy Suites ballroom, he joked that “Obama’s NSA” was censoring conservatives.

“We just saw yet another round of massive premium increases in Colorado,” Cruz said in Loveland. “If your premiums have dropped $2,500 a year, vote for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado. If they haven’t, and your health insurance premiums have gone up, vote for Darryl Glenn.”

Such talk had voters wondering what the 2016 election might have been like with a non-Trump candidate leading the party. At each public stop, Cruz – who will be just 49 years old during the next presidential election in 2020 – spent almost as much time glad-handing and taking photos with supporters as he spent giving his speech.

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“It’s too bad what happened in the primary,” said one fan, clutching a copy of the senator’s memoir.

“Life is long,” Cruz said.

Like Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, like Mitt Romney – and less auspiciously, like former senator Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, – Cruz ran a strong primary campaign that seemed to give him a claim on the next presidential race. According to former spokesman Rick Tyler, Cruz’s poorly timed endorsement of Trump, which came months after he refused to back the businessman at the convention and days before the first presidential debate began the nominee’s polling swoon, put him “on the losing end of either side of the argument” about a post-Trump GOP.

But Cruz made that endorsement after hearing from grass-roots conservatives in Texas; grass-roots conservatives in Colorado were just as happy that he’d evolved.

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“I’m committed to him,” said Linda Feather, 75, who worried that a Hillary Clinton presidency would lead to a surge of Syrian refugees into the United States. “I’m looking for him to run again in four years. I feel deeply that he was the only one who could have beaten Hillary. Mike Pence has strengths and weaknesses, but I see Ted as the most illuminating, most viable person in the movement.”

Voters with that same attitude had nominated Glenn, a county commissioner from Colorado Springs who was elevated at the same state convention – packed with conservative activists – that gave Colorado’s Republican delegates to Cruz.

“It was the most biased thing I’ve ever seen in politics,” said Grady Bouie, 32, a Trump supporter who came to see Cruz in Denver. “Absolutely corrupt.”

Cruz called Bennet the “most vulnerable” Democrat in the Senate, but he didn’t mention how Glenn’s nomination sent national Republicans running from the race. In an average of recent polls, Bennet, who won his first term in a squeaker, led Glenn by 15 points. Glenn’s convention victory and subsequent campaign were reminders that the wing of the party that put up the strongest fight against Trump – Cruz’s wing – had electability issues of its own.

Glenn had won the nomination with support from Cruz allies, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, and with a rousing conservative speech he’d later adapt for the Republican National Convention. To Republican delegates, he promised to be an “unapologetic Christian conservative, pro-life, Second Amendment.” To journalists, he sketched out a possible Senate career that sounded a lot like Cruz’s.

“Republicans have abrogated their responsibility to lead,” Glenn told the Denver Post this summer, “so now Republicans are expected to turn to Democrats for leadership, instead of laying out an agenda that Democrats also could agree with.”

Bennet, a laconic politician who had never won an election before 2010, has dismantled Glenn much the way Democrats had intended to dismantle Cruz had he become the nominee. Tracker video, and Glenn’s own interactions with the press, yielded “apologetic” quotes that were easy to weaponize.

“If you want an abortion, don’t ask me to pay for it,” Glenn said in a 2015 video that Democrats threw back at him in October. “That’s a gift from God. There are no exceptions with that.”

Glenn raised money – $2.8 million in the last quarter, $600,000 more than Bennet – but seemed to be running in a different universe. Bennet’s commercials have talked viewers through his battles to save Centers for Disease Control and Prevention facilities and to pass the farm bill. Glenn’s most striking spot shows the Air Force veteran and former powerlifter sweating through a workout and promising vaguely to change Washington.

But apart from Cruz’s visit – and a Friday campaign tour with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, – Glenn’s race had faded from the national discussion. In the rest of his short conversation with reporters, Cruz got no questions about Glenn’s race. He did get one about Trump – specifically, whether Trump would alienate female voters – and navigated around it.

“There have been no shortages of fireworks in this election cycle, and that’s been unfortunate,” said Cruz. “I’m doing everything I can, down-ballot, to turn out conservatives.”