Ted Cruz shares my values. In state after state, that’s the metric that has driven the Texas senator’s ascent as the true challenger to Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.
Republican voters who listed that as the most important quality in a candidate preferred Cruz over Trump in all 20 states cited in an interactive New York Times graphic published Tuesday before the Wisconsin primary.
The view that Cruz has core conservative Republican values has sustained him as other rivals have faded away, and now it’s the factor that gives him the best chance to unify the GOP at a contested convention in Cleveland this summer.
The question for Cruz is whether he can persuade Republican delegates that he shares their values.
That’s no small trick. It’s hard to overstate the disdain establishment Republicans, particularly those in Washington, have for him. But Trump has done his part to help Cruz in recent weeks with his loutish treatment of women and his inability to talk competently about abortion policy.
In Wisconsin on Tuesday, 35 percent of voters listed “shares my values” as the most important candidate quality, compared with 34 percent who said the candidate’s ability to bring change ranked first, 18 percent who cited telling it like it is and 11 percent who thought electability mattered most. Cruz won the “shares my values” crowd with 66 percent of the vote. Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished a distant second at 20 percent, and Trump was third at 11 percent.
In part, the numbers are a function of Cruz’s popularity with evangelical voters, who are more likely to cast their ballot based on their perception of a candidate’s religious and political values.
When there were more candidates in the race, Trump was able to win pluralities of evangelical voters in a series of southern states, and a narrative took hold that Cruz was slipping with his base. But he always won a substantial share of the evangelical vote, and most of those voters have sorted into the Cruz column with only the Texas senator, Trump and Kasich left to choose from.
Here’s an easy way to think about it: In South Carolina in February, Trump won evangelical voters with 33 percent to Cruz’s 27 percent and Marco Rubio’s 22 percent. On Tuesday, Trump won a nearly identical 34 percent of Wisconsin’s evangelical voters. But Cruz won the category with 55 percent of the vote. Kasich was the choice of just one in 10 evangelical voters.
Now, Cruz has to focus his shared-values advantage on another influential set within the GOP: The delegates to the Republican convention. He has about 10 weeks to make the case to them that he shares their values.
While Washington Republicans may hate Cruz’s guts, voice and visage — and they do — it’s clear that he’s a lot closer to their values than is Trump, who sounds more like a 1950s Democrat most of the time.
The conversion should be even easier for delegates, most of whom haven’t worked closely with Cruz, than the ones who have long cursed his name in the cloakroom on Capitol Hill.
But the nightmare scenario for Cruz is that the establishment uses him as a weapon to stop Trump and then turns on Cruz at the convention and nominates someone who couldn’t compete in the primary or didn’t have the fortitude to run in the first place.
So, it’s in his vital interest to show the Republican establishment that he is enough in line with party values and goals that delegates should nominate him, rather than going outside the top candidates to find a standard-bearer.
The quiet rapprochement has begun. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee have taken the lead in trying to soften opposition to Cruz on Capitol Hill.
Republican insiders may not love Cruz, but, compared to Trump, there’s no question that he shares their values.