But now several reports and public statements suggest just the opposite — that, believe it or not, at least some part of the Republican establishment actually is starting to prefer Trump to Cruz.
Part of this is an electability case. Though both men are believed to be highly unlikely to win a general election, and both hold hard-line immigration views likely to alienate Hispanics, there's at least the possibility that Trump could bring new disaffected white voters to the party. Cruz, on the other hand, would be limited to the existing far right — potentially at great cost to the party's down-ballot prospects. (Though one counterargument to this is that Trump's celebrity could mobilize Hispanics in particular and Democrats more generally to turn out against him in far greater numbers if he's on the ballot.)
But beyond that, the Trump/Cruz choice sheds a great deal of light on just what the Republican Party is. Because, as conceptualized in a great piece by the New York Times's Jonathan Martin, it seems to have resulted in a serious split.
Among intellectuals, commentators, and party actors devoted to advancing "conservatism" as an ideological project, Martin writes, Cruz seems vastly preferable to Trump. But for the more mercenary and pragmatic business and lobbying establishment, Trump seems like someone they could do business with, and Cruz seems like a dangerously inflexible ideologue.
The idea that the GOP would have to choose between just Trump and Cruz — both of whom, in the eyes of many, are highly likely to lose a general election — as their nominee would have seemed absurd, even unimaginable, just last summer.
Yet as every establishment-friendly candidate in the party's enormous field has stubbornly failed to catch on, and as Trump and Cruz remain the only candidates getting serious traction so far, many in the party are increasingly wondering whether they'll be stuck with one of those two.
CNN's Theodore Schleifer went against the grain in finding that "a small and growing number" of establishment Republicans were "coming to terms with the idea" that Cruz "may be palatable." But as you can see, most of the reports and public statements have seemed to incline toward Trump so far (though, of course, this is still quite early, and the balance of opinion could certainly shift).
This has come as a shocker to many analysts. It's long been known that Ted Cruz racked up an astounding number of bitter Republican enemies in his three years in Washington, and that most of his colleagues in Congress truly despise him. But he is still a former Bush administration official and an actual Republican politician who serves in the Senate. Furthermore, he's been devoted to the conservative movement for many years.
Trump, meanwhile, is a complete outsider who doesn't seem to hold any particular ideology, instead frequently changing his positions from year to year according to what benefits him. His intemperate rhetoric embarrasses many party elites, and some of his policies are out-and-out racist.
While Trump is a newcomer to politics, he's been a member of the GOP donor class in good standing for decades now. He knows how things work, and while he often argues to voters that he can't be bought, people are skeptical that he actually believes some of the extreme stuff he says. Sure, he's a man who believes in nothing but himself — but couldn't much of the GOP's business and lobbying class, out to enrich themselves and their clients, be described that way too?