Republicans horrified by the prospect of lofting a tangerine asshole into the White House have gained a hard-won bit of hope in observing Donald Trump's recent procedural missteps: His understaffed and inexperienced campaign birthed a fiasco at the Colorado Republican convention last weekend, accidentally promoting delegates loyal to Cruz and appearing generally unprepared. But even if Trump's passion-fueled crusade begins to weaken against the pitiless force of Republican nominating bylaws, GOP moderates still have little cause to celebrate: Dodging The Donald will almost certainly mean running straight into the stiff embrace of Ted Cruz (R-Uncanny Valley).
The strongest evidence of this eventuality is party chairman Reince Priebus's assertion, "I think our nominee's going to be someone running." Optimists observe the statement has wiggle room. Most of those who have dropped out of the race opted technically to only "suspend" their campaigns -- so it could still be Marco Rubio, or Carly Fiorina, or maybe even Jeb(!)! And at least John Kasich still thinks it could be John Kasich.
But it's got to be Cruz. As satisfying as it might be for establishmentarians to deny him the nomination, the least popular man in Washington is setting up to exact his revenge of the nerd.
Since he first announced for the Senate, Cruz has capitalized on Tea Party activists' thirst for raw, direct democracy. They argue that elected officials should be the uncritical avatars of their constituents; if you were elected to "repeal Obamacare," then no amount of "it doesn't work that way" or "it isn't possible" is an excuse for not repealing Obamacare. Go ahead, shut down the government, even if it means doing irreparable harm to your party!
Since the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, party elites have benefited from the way in which its rhetoric riled their base, even as it revealed cracks between the establishment and the party's most visible rising stars (such as Cruz and fellow rabble-rouser Utah Sen. Mike Lee). Using convention rules to bypass the top-vote-getter (Trump) is itself a repudiation of that Tea Party desire for immediate accountability. The party's grand poobahs (technical term, a.k.a. "Rules Committee") could look at Cruz's miserable polling and decide to bypass Cruz as well — a superficially rational move that risks a total implosion of the Republican base.
And this is where it gets morbidly interesting, where it turns out the creepy threats to the party's well-being are coming from inside the house. Cruz voters are especially dangerous because they are the party activists and true believers, the kind of voters that the party depends on to get out other voters. They will arrive in Cleveland with experience in voting procedures and delegate rules -- that's how they've gotten this far, after all: scrounging for delegates in otherwise dusty and neglected corners of the country such as North Dakota and lying in wait to pick them off in heavily Democratic districts in New York (where low Republican turnout gives advantage to Cruz's disciplined campaign over Trump's native-son coasting).
Currently, Trump's bellyaching about a "stolen" nomination just attests to his lack of organizational intelligence. But if the rules change underneath the feet of Cruz delegates, they'll know (and be able to show exactly how) they're being screwed.
All that institutional knowledge is what makes Cruz activists an existential threat to the party in the long term as well: Who better to engineer the emergence of a third party, maybe as soon as Cruz's reelection Senate campaign in 2018? Those grassroots volunteers can provide the foundational framework that most third-party ventures have to do without: They can run in down-ballot races, get people elected to school boards, and create local networks built on the ashes of a Republican Party that abandoned them.
And it’s hard to imagine what would stop Cruz from giddily leading such a movement. He already possesses the revival-preacher cadences and barely concealed ambition of a cult leader; a mere whisper could propel him into believing he is bigger than the party he says he wants to lead. He has no real GOP loyalty; indeed, distaste for the party is his calling card. In his memoir, he brags about his lack of connections: "Frankly, I’ve found the more reviled you are in Washington, the more they appreciate you in places like Waco, and Dallas, and San Antonio.” In fact, Cruz's recent warning that "the people would quite rightly revolt" over a nominee "parachuting in" suggests he's already given some active thought as to what form that revolt might take.
All that is to say that the GOP is stuck with him. Cruz's subtle menace has not been lost on the 2016 jokesters who tagged him as the Zodiac Killer. The Republican Party is now his hostage. Its leaders cannot realistically co-opt his voters for another candidate with a plea for the greater good of the party, because Cruz and his voters don't particularly care about the Republican Party. Antiestablishment, anti-Washington, antigovernment rhetoric has brought the GOP victories for years without exacting too much cost. Now, if they want to avoid Trump, they'll have to pay — and the price is Cruz at the top of the ticket.