GOP senators: Anyone but Cruz

Jittery Republican senators think Donald TrumpDonald TrumpChaffetz: Threats against lawmakers should be taken seriously Warren cautions Dems against infighting CIA director: Leaks 'seem to be on the increase' MORE would actually give them a better chance of keeping their Senate majority if he were the party’s presidential nominee instead of Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzGOP at decisive moment on Planned Parenthood Trump: ‘I cannot imagine’ GOP senators don’t back healthcare bill Trump making calls to senators on healthcare bill MORE (R-Texas).

With the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of the 2016 presidential primary, just over a week away, some Senate Republicans are beginning to talk up Trump’s candidacy.

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“The bottom line is many people around here think Cruz would be worse for our chances of keeping the majority,” said a senior Republican senator, who requested anonymity to speak about Cruz frankly. “He’s so polarizing, it could be a wipeout.”

Trump is by no means a favorite within the Senate GOP conference, but lawmakers feel he has more crossover appeal with independents and swing voters. And even while they find many of his comments annoying, they like him more than Cruz.

“Trump says things that drive you up the wall — he says he doesn’t like guys who get captured and that he’ll make Mexico pay for the wall — but he’s not mean. Cruz is mean,” said the senior Republican.

Trump last summer questioned Sen. John McCainJohn McCainFrustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response Coats: Trump seemed obsessed with Russia probe The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE’s (R-Ariz.) status as a war hero because he was a prisoner of war.

But Cruz’s relentless jibes at his colleagues’ conservative bona fides has piqued them more because it undermines their standing with the party’s base and could motivate potential conservative primary challengers.

GOP senators say Cruz showed his colors last year when he called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP at decisive moment on Planned Parenthood Opioid crisis threatens GOP ObamaCare repeal Trump making calls to senators on healthcare bill MORE (R-Ky.) a liar on the Senate floor. Cruz accused his leader of deceiving him about whether he made a secret deal with Democrats to allow a vote reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank.

“I haven't seen any great desire on his part to really bring the party along with him so that's something that worries me,” Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchLive coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill Grassley doesn't see how Judiciary 'can avoid' obstruction probe Ryan calls for tax reform to be permanent MORE (R-Utah) told The Associated Press last week. “I think it would help him a lot if he would learn how other people feel and work with other people a little bit better, and I think that naturally will occur.”

Catherine Frazier, a Cruz campaign spokeswoman, said the critical comments from fellow Republicans are an attempt to derail the candidacy of a true conservative.

“The establishment has been pushing this same flawed narrative for years, yet they keep losing elections for Republicans. Running to the middle and nominating a moderate who will continue to bank the payroll of the Washington Cartel is a losing strategy,” she said.

Frazier argued that Cruz would help Republicans win races in November by energizing the GOP base and appealing as a reform-minded candidate to women, independents and Reagan Democrats “who are all looking for a different path than the one we are on.”

Another GOP senator who requested anonymity said that while neither Cruz nor Trump would be ideal ticket toppers in states such as New Hampshire and Florida, it will be easier for vulnerable incumbents to distance themselves from Trump than from Cruz.

“Trump’s not really seen as a Republican, while Cruz is much more identified with the party,” the lawmaker said. “Trump would be better heading the ticket than Cruz.”

“Trump has more crossover appeal,” the lawmaker added, predicting that could help GOP candidates in Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire and other purple states pick up independents and conservative Democrats. 

Trump’s strongest supporters are registered Democrats who self-identify as Republicans.

The senator recalled the radioactive effect that two Republican Senate candidates, Todd Akin, who ran in Missouri, and Richard Mourdock, who ran in Indiana, had on Republicans running for Senate seats in other races.

Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” and Mourdock’s claim that pregnancy resulting from rape “is something that God intended” not only sank their own campaigns but also became political liabilities for candidates in other states by alienating women.  

Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteOPINION: Democracy will send ISIS to the same grave as communism Kelly Ayotte joins defense contractor's board of directors Week ahead: Comey firing dominates Washington MORE (R-N.H.), who faces a tough challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, would probably prefer Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioWill Republicans stand up to the NRA's insurrection rhetoric? The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Ivanka Trump turns to House GOP on paid family leave MORE (R-Fla.) or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as the party’s nominee.

But if it came down to a choice between Cruz and Trump, Ayotte would probably opt for Trump, he said.

“I’m sure the idea of her and Cruz on the same ticket makes her shudder,” he said, noting that Ayotte and Cruz have clashed within GOP conference meetings over his choice of tactics.

“Beyond the collegial problems, objectively speaking, if Cruz wins the nomination it’s going to be thanks to very conservative Republican voters, religious conservatives, social conservatives and so forth. That’s not a good fit for this state,” he said.

Scala predicts Cruz would perform “at least three points worse” in New Hampshire than GOP presidential nominees Mitt Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008, creating a headwind for Ayotte.

He added that Cruz would likely have to play up the issue of abortion rights more than Trump because he is relying so much on evangelical voters in the primary.

Trump is not seen as reflecting party orthodoxy, while Cruz often bashes his own party leaders for not being pure enough.

Another senior GOP senator said he and his colleagues now evaluate Trump’s political viability much more favorably than they did a few months ago.

“That’s because he’s defied so much the way we thought politics works,” the lawmaker said, in reference to Trump’s tenacious hold on the front-runner mantle.

Some political experts agree that while Trump would not provide much help to Senate Republican candidates in the general election, he will hurt them less than Cruz.

“You need to accept that the term ‘better’ is relative because in this case it just means less worse. That said, Republicans are probably correct because Trump's base is broader than Cruz's, but I still think having Trump as the nominee puts the majority at risk,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for The Cook Political Report.

Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University, which this past week released a poll on the state of the presidential race in Florida, said Cruz has the highest negatives among independent voters.

“Trump is clearly a stronger player in Florida right now than Cruz would be,” said Wagner, who noted that Trump is a part-time Florida resident and “already has a pretty good base here.”

“In our recent poll, Cruz’s negatives among independents and Democrats were among the highest in the Republican field,” he said. If Republicans are worried that he wouldn’t play well across the aisle, the evidence seems to back that up at this point.”

“We’ve seen Trump numbers among Republicans start from relatively low to get to about 70 percent approval among Republicans in our poll,” he added. “On the other side of the aisle, he doesn’t do well, but almost everyone does better than Cruz.”

Frazier, Cruz’s campaign spokeswoman, however, argues that Cruz helped Republicans picked up nine Senate seats in 2014 by rallying the conservative base over ObamaCare and other hot-button issues.

“Just look back at 2014, when Cruz made the midterm elections a referendum on defunding ObamaCare and stopping amnesty — it’s what every candidate ran on. And we won nine Senate seats and the House earned its largest GOP majority since 1920,” she said.