AUG. 25, 2016 — The most significant question facing Republicans coming out of the presidential election is how much influence Donald Trump will have on their party’s national character.
Winners or losers, some nominees haven’t remade the GOP in their image, or even made much of a dent. Others have defined the party for a generation or more — as evidenced most recently by Sen. Ted Cruz’s attempt to rally conservatives against Trump by working explicitly to “reassemble that old Reagan coalition.” Trump destroyed that effort. But what comes next?
The answer may come in the unlikeliest of forms: a primary challenge to Cruz himself by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In an eye-popping survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, Perry was the only challenger tested who would defeat Cruz, 46 to 37 percent. What’s more, he’d beat every other sampled matchup, Republican or Democrat.
On the one hand, there’s something utterly predictable or commonsensical about this result. Perry was a successful governor; Cruz has struggled to shake his reputation as a man for whom the Senate is little more than a fast track to the White House.
On the other hand, however, even though Perry hasn’t declared a run, his strong appeal as a Cruz alternative should thunder through the party establishment. Here is a signal from the future — either a warning or an opportunity.
The warning is plain enough: Trump appears poised to have a longer lasting impact on the party than his many staunch opponents would hope. Set aside the rumors that he’s already scheming to launch a branded media property if he loses his bid for president. The real peril for the anti-Trump crowd is that he’ll pull the party establishment toward his ideology and his base.
A big desire in Texas to see less Cruz and more Perry — who endorsed Trump as the party’s legitimate nominee — signals that Republicans are comfortable with a more Trumplike party come November, not a less Trumplike one.
This despite Perry’s immensely clumsy and for some humiliating about-face on his onetime rival. Last July, Perry was one of the first Republican candidates to go nuclear on Trump, using biblical language to slam him as a “sower of discord” setting conservatives on a “road to perdition.”
But by May of this year, Trump had become “one of the most talented people who has ever run for president” who Perry had ever seen. “He is not a perfect man,” the governor allowed. “But what I do believe is that he loves this country and he will surround himself with capable, experienced people and he will listen to them.”
Sure enough, Trump now praises Perry as “one popular guy all over, but Texas in particular,” who’d “do well” if he took on Cruz.
So is it curtains for the Never Trumpers?
Not so fast: there’s an opportunity in Perry’s newfound appeal. Ted Cruz has never sat particularly well with many establishment types in the party. But the open secret is he was never many conservatives’ favorite either. He was certainly Trump’s most disciplined, intelligent and calculating opponent, and plainly comfortable with Reagan conservatism. Nevertheless, that hasn’t been enough to lock him in as the party’s great hope for a recovery from Trumpism.
Perhaps what’s needed, however less principled, is a set of figures like Perry, who caved to Trump in the clutch but could recover the GOP’s equilibrium in a more comfortable way than Cruz.