CLEVELAND — The bitterest rivalry of the Republican primaries ended on Wednesday night, as Sen. Ted Cruz took the podium at the party’s convention and congratulated Donald Trump “on winning the nomination” – but did not endorse him.
“Vote your conscience,” Cruz said. “Vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”
As it became clear that Cruz would not endorse Trump, many in the Quicken Loans Arena booed. There were shouts of “honor your pledge!” at pro-Cruz delegates, and heckles of Cruz’s wife Heidi, who was escorted off the floor. Before Cruz had finished speaking, Trump himself emerged and walked down to the VIP box, applause for him mixing with boos for Cruz, and nearly downing out the senator from Texas.
The passive-aggressive showdown was inevitable. Two months after returning to the Senate, Cruz has maintained an organization and close network of advisers befitting a future presidential candidate. In 2020, if Trump loses the presidency and opens a new primary field, Cruz will be just 49 years old. In 2040, he will only be as old as Trump and Hillary Clinton are right now.
That fact is not lost on his supporters, more than a thousand of whom gathered at a waterfront restaurant about a mile from the convention to celebrate Cruz. On Wednesday afternoon, the line to get in stretched across a parking lot, with more than a thousand conservatives ready to cram into Shooters on the Water. They wore the football-style “Cruz 45” jerseys they’d bought in Iowa or Minnesota or Texas; they carted copies of the senator’s memoir, and sharpies ready for his signature.
And they split on whether he should officially endorse the Republican nominee. Hyman Drusin, a New Yorker and candidate for office, had scrawled “2020” over the “2016” on his Cruz campaign button. He intended to write in Cruz for president and hoped that Cruz would not endorse Trump.
“I saw Manafort on TV, saying, ‘This isn’t the Republican Party, this is the Trump party,’ ” Drusin grumbled, referring to Trump’s campaign manager. “That’s what he thinks of party unity. Why should Ted endorse that?”
Dick Black, a Virginia state senator and pro-Cruz delegate, said that the holdouts needed to get behind Trump’s candidacy. That included holdouts like Cruz, who surely understood the threat of radical Islam and the way a new President Clinton would enable it.
“I think he’s gonna support Donald Trump,” he said. “It would be a huge mistake if he didn’t.”
Indeed, he didn’t – and cut a different path than Ronald Reagan, a political role model. Cruz opted not to release his delegates, allowing him to say that he’d won more support from the floor than any losing candidate since Reagan in 1976. But Reagan endorsed President Gerald Ford, and campaigned for him, while Cruz would not be doing that for Trump.
“You’ve got to get to one step before you make the second,” Cruz’s campaign manager Jeff Roe explained before Cruz’s lunchtime speech for delegates. “Ted’s going to spend a lot of time and resources campaigning in races he’s already been involved in.”
That was a reference to Senate and other downballot races, not the presidency. Since the end of the presidential race, Cruz has already backed one Senate candidate – Colorado’s Darryl Glenn – who worried the state’s political establishment but won over conservative activists.
Cruz’s presidential bid also ended with close to $10 million unspent, money that will allow him to travel across the country, and stage events like Wednesday’s, which featured a buffet spread and specially designed signs that were snatched up for souvenirs. He’s kept a close circle of campaign advisers, and made himself available to conservatives already plotting for a post-Trump 2020 election, flying to Cleveland before the convention began to meet with the secretive Council for National Policy.
On Wednesday, before taking the convention stage, Cruz framed his unsuccessful 2016 bid as a crusade – a “movement” – that had broken organizing records but fallen to the black swan candidacy of Trump.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Cruz said at one point. Sensing a cue, members of the audience shouted “2020!”
Later, Cruz quoted the opening monologue of the Academy Award-winning biopic “Patton,” telling his supporters that they would look back on 2016 and realize they were on the right side of history.
“I feel very much those sentiments expressed by Patton, that when we are old and gray – and Caroline and Catherine, I hope you give us a passel of grandkids – we can say, we stood with the people who were fighting for this country,” said Cruz, referring to his young daughters.
But Trump could not let his defeated rival have an afternoon to himself. “Our party now has a nominee,” said Cruz.
Boos started rising from the audience, then laughter, which seemed to surprise Cruz. He turned his head to see Trump’s Boeing 757, with his name visible from a mile away, descending toward an airfield.
“That was well-orchestrated,” Cruz deadpanned.
Hours later, in the Quicken Loans Arena, Cruz finally took the microphone back from Trump. After the pro-forma congratulation, Cruz delivered a speech designed for someone seizing his party’s nomination – someone coming into his own as a national leader. He paid tribute to Michael Smith, a police sergeant killed this month by a sniper in Dallas.
“His life was a testament to devotion,” said Cruz. “He protected the very protesters who mocked him because he loved his country and his fellow man.”
Cruz went on to endorse both Trump’s version of conservatism, and his own – everything from “a wall to keep us safe” to the abolition of the Affordable Care Act.
But in asking delegates to vote their “conscience” and saying that voters should choose candidates who could lead without “anger,” Cruz appeared to be making a swipe at Trump. When he suggested that voters needed to follow their consciences, New York’s delegation began chanting “Trump!”
“I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation,” Cruz said, before that enthusiasm drowned out his applause.
The Washington Post’s Robert Costa contributed to this report.