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Ted Cruz Risks Future With Dicey Political Game

Ted Cruz came to Cleveland with his eyes on a future White House bid and hopes to capitalize on a divided GOP; instead, he may have ruined his career.
RNC in Cleveland 2016
Texas Senator and former Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz speaks during the third day of the 2016 Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 20 July 2016.TANNEN MAURY / EPA

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Ted Cruz blew it.

The Texas senator came to Cleveland with his eyes on a future White House bid and hopes to capitalize on nominee Donald Trump’s divided base of support; instead, he might just have ruined his career.

In refusing to endorse Trump in a speech Wednesday or even say he’d vote for Trump the next morning, and instead pitching his own principles repeatedly, the onetime presidential candidate may have overplayed his hand. The fallout has been swift and stony cold: billionaire mega-donor Sheldon Adelson – who Cruz has spent years trying to impress – refused the senator entry to his donor suite after the speech.

Trump allies told The Hill they are plotting to challenge Cruz in the primary when his first term is up in 2018. His most loyal supporters – the Texas party stalwarts who make up the state’s convention delegation – repeatedly criticized Cruz over his decision, one going as far to shout that they’d win in 2016 “with or without you!”

“Lucifer is back," declared former House Speaker John Boehner; New York Rep. Peter King called him a “fraud, a liar;” Gov. Chris Christie called Cruz's convention performance “awfully selfish.”

“It would have been a fantastic speech, if it had forgiven Trump for all the awful things that were said about his family,” Texas delegate Lee Lester told NBC News on Thursday morning at a Texas delegation breakfast where Cruz spoke. “When it’s over, it’s time to come together.”

But what’s clear is that the wounds from the bitter primary haven’t healed and Cruz won’t united with Trump, unity pledge be damned.

“I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” Cruz told the Texas delegation fiercely. “That pledge was not a blanket commitment that if you attack and slander Heidi, I'm going to come along like a servile puppy dog."

Since suspending up his White House bid in May, Cruz has overtly been posturing for another: a nostalgic video commemorating his bid ended with “to be continued,” and he’s been seen courting donors openly. He reportedly confers with top aides regularly, too. But instead of building upon the last bid, his convention speech solidified his weaknesses.

After struggling for years to shake a reputation for being stubborn and unlikeable in the primary, in Cleveland Cruz cast himself as both those things. Instead of boosting his own profile or even uniting the party behind Trump, Cruz united the party — against Cruz.

Chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” dogged Cruz in both appearances, but Cruz defiantly fought back.

“What does it say when you stand up and say vote your conscience. And rabid supporters of our nominee begin screaming ‘what a horrible thing to say!’” Cruz told the Texas delegation, which vocally expressed their frustration at his decision not to endorse. “If we can't make the case to the American people that voting for our party's nominee is consistent with voting your conscience, is consistent with defending freedom and being faithful to the Constitution, then we are not going to win and we don't deserve to win.”

His lack of an endorsement overshadowed what was otherwise a compelling speech in which Cruz markedly shifted towards the center and widened the tent: he spoke somberly about the divided nation and the shootings that have rocked it, protecting the freedoms for gay Americans, and mentioned Alton Sterling, whose death at the hands of police sparked protest. In perhaps the greatest diversion from the rest of the convention’s lineup, he talked policy at length.

“It’s a great opportunity, and a huge opportunity for him,” former Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters Wednesday afternoon before the speech, at a lakeside restaurant ‘thank you’ event for Cruz supporters. There, he saw the reaction he likely hope for at the convention: was embraced, celebrated, and pushed towards running again.

“2020! 2020! 2020!” they chanted at one point, booing at Trump at another. But a half dozen supporters who were interviewed at the event said fully planned to vote for Trump this year, and many said they expected an endorsement in his Wednesday night speech.

“I don’t know what the future is going to hold. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Cruz told them that afternoon. “But what I do know what remains unshakable is my faith in the men and women here.”

But after Cleveland, it is their faith in Cruz that has been shaken.

“It’s not going to ruin Ted Cruz’s career — we hope,” Texas delegate Jeneria Lewis said.