By Mike Lillis
Democrats are rooting for Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzAnti-Trump leaders sending 'advance team' to Cleveland: report Trump's support among white Protestant Republicans ticks up GOP senator pushes Trump to adopt 'constitutional agenda' MORE (Texas) to win the Republican presidential nomination, and Jeb Bush is the 2016 candidate they fear the most, according to a survey conducted by The Hill.
In interviews with more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers, former members and strategists, The Hill asked questions to gauge what Democrats think of the large Republican field.
Bush, they say, would be the much tougher opponent, because he’s a former governor from a political dynasty who can both raise hundreds of millions of dollars and appeal more strongly to women and independent voters.
The former Florida governor’s moderate positions on immigration, while unpopular in conservative circles, would also help him with Hispanic voters who could prove crucial in important battleground states such as Florida, Nevada, Virginia and Colorado, the Democrats say.
Bush has not officially entered the contest, but is expected to announce his bid in the coming weeks.
“Unquestionably, without going into names, a more centrist Republican candidate is tougher to campaign against,” said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who’s heading the messaging strategy for House Democrats.
“All the polling shows us that the Republican brand is highly unpopular,” Israel added. “A Republican who’s reflecting that brand all the way on the right is easy to win against. A Republican who plays against the brand is harder to win against.”
Behind Bush, Democrats are also wary of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), two relatively new faces who have nonetheless proven to be effective fundraisers while appealing to conservatives and independents alike.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) characterized both as “formidable opponents,” singling out Rubio as particularly tough “because he has no record” and “can make it up as he goes.”
Democrats, who are licking their wounds after a brutal 2014 election cycle, are hoping to ride the coattails of their most likely nominee — Hillary Clinton — to down-ballot success at the polls in 2016.
But they think their chances also hinge on their ability to draw the sharpest contrast between the two candidates at the top of the ticket. That’s why Bush and Rubio worry Democratic operatives.
The Democrats polled by The Hill — by no means members of the Cruz fan club — are rooting for him in the primary battle.
The overwhelming refrain from the Democrats polled is that the Texas senator’s no-apologies brand of conservatism would provide the contrast that will boost their odds in congressional races.
“I don’t [dispute] that Cruz is a force — he’s demonstrated that — but he’s the force that we’d like to see,” said Rep. John Larson (Conn.), former head of the House Democratic Caucus. “He’s a very talented and capable person, but his path to ascendency is to take them further right than they already are, and in order for them to win, they’ve got to be center-right.”
Doug Thornell, Democratic strategist and managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, echoed that message, arguing that a Cruz nomination “would be a catastrophe for the Republican Party.”
“He would be an anvil around the necks of House and Senate Republicans,” Thornell said. “He’s toxic. People see him as a destructive force who doesn’t want to see Washington work, and would shut the place down.”
The 44-year-old Cruz, the first candidate to jump into the still-growing GOP primary field, has been a quickly rising force in national politics, carving out a conservative niche.
His insistence that an ObamaCare repeal be a part of a government spending package contributed to the 2013 shutdown, and his hard line on issues as diverse as immigration reform and abortion have made him a darling of the Tea Party. But many Republicans are wary of Cruz, saying that he has damaged the GOP brand.
Several political action committees supporting Cruz have raked in tens of millions of dollars already this year. And Cruz’s campaign got a boost last week when four Texas Republicans — Reps. Louie Gohmert, Michael Burgess, John Culberson and John Ratcliffe — endorsed his presidential bid.
Still, establishment Republicans, perhaps acknowledging Cruz’s polarizing nature, have been much more reluctant to get on board. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said he’s looking for a presidential nominee “who can unite our party and not divide it.”
“A lot of us are tired of this division going on,” McCaul said Thursday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington. “I like more a Reagan-type person who can bring the party together and the country, and not be a polarizing, divisive figure.”
Democrats know that Cruz is not the favorite to win the GOP primary. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Bush at the top, with Cruz tied for fifth.
Still, political strategists say Cruz could do well in the Iowa caucuses and seize momentum. A recent Quinnipiac University poll had Walker leading Iowa, with Cruz in fourth place and Bush in seventh.
A former House Democrat, noting Cruz’s role in fueling the 2013 government shutdown, said the freshman Texas senator would be a godsend for the Democrats.
“He’s polarizing enough that he would really stimulate the Democratic base,” the former lawmaker said on background. “And he’s controversial enough in the Republican Party that it would disquiet the Chamber of Commerce wing and deaden the Republican turnout.”
Not all Democrats agree. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) said he’s concerned that the fellow Texan would energize Republicans in a way that Mitt Romney simply didn’t in 2012. And Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) offered a similar message, arguing that turnout in states like his “is the whole game.”
“In Florida, there’s the blue team, there’s the red team, and everyone knows which team they’re on. It’s that simple. So the only question is: Can you get your people to vote?” Grayson said. “The more effective Republican presidential candidate will be the one who can motivate the base.”
Martin Matishak, Bernie Becker and Peter Schroeder contributed.