BY MARGARET CARLSON
Step right up, folks, to the Ted Cruz-John Kasich game. The aim is to push out the candidate who could win in November in favor of the one who can’t. Everything else has failed to stop Donald Trump, but the Republicans’ strategy of putting their few remaining eggs in Sen. Cruz’s basket and insulting Gov. Kasich back to the Ohio statehouse is delusional — as is their assertion that a vote for Kasich is a vote for Trump.
Let’s take a look: It’s hard to believe that any politician could be doing worse than Hillary Clinton, who had a net unfavorable rating of minus 13 in a March Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, but Cruz, at minus 18, manages it. Kasich has a net positive 19. Every poll shows Cruz losing to Clinton. As for the nomination, the proposition that Cruz alone could stop Trump is wrong to anyone who reads exit polls, studies current ones or looks at the map.
What’s more, Cruz is the most universally disrespected politician in the Republican Party, which he wears as a badge of honor. And Cruz doesn’t have Trump’s positives, if you can say such a thing about celebrity, a fake everyman persona, disdain, shared by his followers, for policy and a knack for memorable slogans.
Cruz is a careerist who took the outsider route when his persistent efforts to ingratiate himself with insiders failed. In endorsing him, Jeb Bush had much to say about Washington being broken, but he failed to mention that Cruz was largely responsible for breaking it, forcing senseless government shutdowns, spouting nonsense during his preening filibusters, and adding significantly to the bitter enmity on Capitol Hill — and that’s on his side of the aisle. Trump’s sobriquet of “Lyin’ Ted” doesn’t sound all that outlandish to many of those who tried to work with the Texas senator on Capitol Hill.
Cruz’s conduct worked to make him famous, but until panic set in, no one thought it would work to make him the nominee, much less president. The trend so far when someone gets out is that many of those votes go to Trump. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that were Kasich to drop out today, more than half of his vote would go to the front-runner.
Although Kasich is being hammered for continuing to exist, he has a good case for staying in: He governs Ohio, which no Republican has won the White House without, was re-elected there with record numbers, and has high approval ratings for turning the deficit into a surplus and bringing 400,000 jobs to the state. He’s pro-life and a fiscal conservative. He over-hugs but has kept out of the mud pit. He wins in every matchup with Clinton, while Trump and Cruz lose by double digits.
Therefore, he has to go. National Review’s Jeremy Carl writes: “It is long past time to throw Kasich’s campaign into the ash heap of history.” Sen. Lindsey Graham took a more reasonable approach, objecting that Kasich is an insider in an outsider year. Graham, who once quipped that “If you killed Ted Cruz in the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you,” recently endorsed him for the nomination.
On “The Daily Show” last week, he struggled to explain his sudden change of heart: “I don’t dislike Ted. Ted and I have a lot of differences. He’s my 15th choice. What can I say? He’s not completely crazy.”
The New York Times piled on Kasich with a headline about his nastiness, which was hardly justified by the reporting. Since leaving Congress, where he lived the Reagan dream by ramming through a balanced budget, he’s mellowed. He’s gotten married, had twin girls, become an evangelical Christian and made peace with his parents being killed by a drunk driver. He has a favorability rating of about 70 percent in his home state, where he won re-election with 64 percent of the vote.
But he bugs the Republican base. He isn’t going to deport grandmothers. He seems squishy on trade, though he’s brought back Ohio despite NAFTA. He took Medicaid expansion dollars as part of Obamacare and justified that decision by saying that he worried about accounting to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates had he not made sure the poorest were covered. Nonetheless, he never waves around a Bible like Cruz and Trump. He may sound too much like a compassionate conservative, but a short time ago that was the kind the Republicans claimed to want. In short, he’s electable in the fall. Some Republicans hate that.
The ideal would be a two-front war against Trump. Had Cruz not insisted that he was out to win Florida when he had no chance, Sen. Marco Rubio might have taken the state’s 99 delegates. In Utah, where Cruz had a chance, the more mature Kasich stood down and it worked. Cruz’s win denied Trump any delegates.
And in Ohio, with Cruz and Rubio still in, Kasich won decisively, keeping 66 delegates from Trump. Looking forward to northeastern states, Cruz is not going to win moderate conservatives, see the polls above. In Pennsylvania, a Franklin and Marshall survey showed Kasich statistically even with Trump, and Cruz a distant third. To stop Trump, Cruz has to stay out.
What Republicans want — other than the 30 percent voting for Trump — is not a Cruz win but a brokered convention. There are fewer winner-take-all states left and there’s no saying Cruz could win those in a one-on-one matchup against Trump. In moderate states coming up — and where delegates are allocated — to deny Trump his 1,237 delegates, the party has to reverse its mantra: A vote for Cruz is a vote for Trump.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.