Republicans are worried a Donald Trump nomination could threaten the party's chances of holding the Senate and winning seats in the House.
But they're even more concerned about Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who surpassed Trump in Iowa polling this weekend and has been gaining in national polls.
"How problematic Cruz would be as the nominee has been obscured by the Trump circus," said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, a veteran of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. That's because some Republicans suggest Cruz may be more dangerous to down-ballot candidates than Trump, for the simple reason that because of the well-disciplined campaign Cruz is running, the freshman senator has a better shot at actually winning the nomination.
At the Republican Jewish Coalition presidential forum earlier this month, it was Cruz's on-stage remarks, not Trump's, that prompted South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to go off script and deliver a strong rebuke of the rhetoric he thinks is threatening the party.
“It’s not about turning out evangelical Christians, it’s about repairing the damage done by incredibly hateful rhetoric,” Graham said.
Cruz hasn't gone as far as Trump in suggesting the U.S. bar all Muslims from entering the country, but many Republicans are unnerved by the way he talks about Hispanics and immigration.
Ahead of Tuesday's Las Vegas debate, a group of Hispanic Republicans hit Cruz for supporting what they said amounts to "self-deportation," a position reminiscent of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who went on to win 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the general election.
Nevada, where Latino voters now make up 15 percent of the electorate, is one of Republicans' only offensive Senate opportunities. In 2012, now-Sen. Dean Heller narrowly outperformed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Walsh believes Rep. Joe Heck, the Republicans' choice for Senate this year in the Silver State, could again outpace the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, but a Cruz nomination would make it harder for Heck to win. In other competitive Senate states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin — Walsh believes each of the GOP candidates "would have the ability to outperform Hillary Clinton" if she's the Democratic nominee, but "the question is by how much," he said, especially because voters are increasingly moving away from splitting their tickets. Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey declined to answer how a Cruz nomination would shape his fate as he slipped into an elevator on his way to party lunches at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte has repeatedly questioned Cruz's tactics in the Senate , first in the lead up to the 2013 government shutdown and again this fall when Cruz lobbied to block funding for Planned Parenthood. But she wouldn't speculate Cruz's impact on her race either.
"I just think we’ve got a long way before this nomination, and so I’m going to let the people of New Hampshire have their votes; and we have an important role to play," Ayotte told Roll Call. The top five Republican senators on Roll Call's most vulnerable list , including Ayotte and Toomey, were elected during the 2010 GOP wave and haven't yet faced a presidential-year test.
"Someone like a Heck or Ayotte can stand on their own and win their state, but who is at the top of the ticket matters," Walsh said. Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman who's backing Cruz, sees the Texas senator pulling important weight in a state such as Michigan, which has several competitive House races.
"He's one of the few candidates who can actually appeal to the Reagan Democrat," Anuzis said. That's an opinion not widely shared by Republicans in Washington, though.
Although House candidates are more insulated from the top of the ticket, at the Senate level, Cruz's "firebrand" tone, and the way he's "capitalizing on the politics of fear" risks alienating independent voters, one national Republican operative said.
But what's most concerning to Walsh isn't just Cruz's hardline positions; it's what he sees as Cruz's complete disregard of what it takes to win a general election as a Republican.
"He has not hidden the fact that he does not intend to target independents or minorities, which is just confounding," Walsh said. "He is operating on this myth that all you have to do is turn out millions of conservatives who did not vote last time." Cruz is planning a Christmas tour through the Deep South as part of his efforts to lock-up the so-called SEC primary states , which vote March 1. When it comes to winning the primary, Walsh said, that may help.
But the general election is a different story.
"The cavalry is not there," Walsh said. Related: