Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s striking snub of Donald Trump — and the cascade of boos that followed it — has ratcheted up the tension around his scheduled visit to Georgia on Friday to stump for an anti-establishment congressional candidate.
Cruz is hosting a “Rally for Freedom” for state Sen. Mike Crane on Friday that could draw a protest from the Georgia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which is smarting over the state senator’s remarks on no-knock warrants, and could fast become a focal point for Georgia’s anti-Trump movement.
The visit comes after Cruz’s show-stopping speech Wednesday at the Republican National Convention all but destroyed the party’s efforts to portray a united front and reopened lingering wounds in the Georgia GOP.
The Texas senator emerged as the undisputed face of the Republican resistance to Trump when he refused to endorse his party’s nominee, dividing a Georgia delegation torn over whether he’s a principled conservative or a selfish White House wannabe.
And Cruz has become a litmus test for Republicans torn over whether to rally to the Texan’s side or steer clear of a politician who could be blamed for tanking Trump’s election if he loses in November.
“I’ve got two words for you: Texas toast,” Georgia GOP Chairman John Padgett said, firmly aligning himself with the latter camp. “We came back last night and pointed a finger or two. If you can’t get on board with our candidate, at least let’s not be critical of our candidate. That fight is over with.”
And yet, to some Trump skeptics inside the fractious GOP, it’s not. Although he finished as runner-up to Trump in Georgia’s March presidential primary, his supporters won dozens of delegate slots in April meetings. And six refused to sign pledges they would cast their vote at the convention for the New York businessman.
“He did something that was very difficult for him to do, and I respect him for having the courage to take a stand,” said Katie Frost, a Newnan activist and delegate. “Remember, we are just 10 weeks away from a very bitter primary battle. And since when is conscience a bad word?”
Cruz, himself, fanned the flames with a visit Thursday to the Texas delegation, saying he would not act like a “servile puppy dog” and endorse a candidate who attacked his father and his wife on the campaign trail.
“This isn’t a team sport,” Cruz said. “You don’t just put on red jerseys and blue jerseys and say ‘yay!’ This is about principles.”
‘Destroyed his political future’
Cruz’s comments have transformed the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland in west Georgia into an early test of the Texan’s popularity. In a statement, Crane defended Cruz’s comments as a “stirring defense of liberty” and said he would “wholeheartedly” support Trump.
His opponent, former West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson, poked fun at the awkward timing of Cruz’s previously scheduled visit. Ferguson spokesman Dan McLagan suggested that Crane “is probably trying to figure out if anyone would notice if he just forgot to pick Cruz up at the airport.”
If Georgia’s delegation is any indication, Cruz won’t get a very warm welcome. Many delegates said Cruz put a personal grudge before his party, and even some of his most ardent supporters were embarrassed by his snub of Trump.
“I voted for Ted Cruz. My whole family did. But the people in the state and across the nation spoke, and it didn’t work out for him,” said Linda Park, a Newton County alternate. “What he did last night hurt him immensely. He just destroyed his political future.”
Louie Hunter, who was one of Cruz’s statewide grass-roots coordinators, said Cruz miscalculated. Then again, he added, he can’t blame the senator for denying Trump his support.
“The liberal media will make a big deal out of this for a while; it will blow over,” Hunter said. “And if Trump gets killed in November, he could look a little smarter for holding back. But he could also get the blame. It was a fine, fine line for him to try to walk last night.”
State Sen. Josh McKoon, a Cruz supporter and delegate, blamed Trump operatives he said were dispatched into the crowd to urge delegates to jeer the Texan, calling it an “innate need to punish” his vanquished rival. That only ratcheted up the mistrust among Trump skeptics who are already wavering on how enthusiastically to support the real estate mogul.
“It will have an impact on the degree of support for Trump,” he said. “Everyone in that hall will vote for Donald Trump. But the question among Georgians is how many will pile into a bus in October, ride down to Tallahassee and knock on doors. What does it do to grass-roots activity?
He added: “Imagine that speech, but with a rousing applause. No one would be talking about it.”
Others had a drastically different take. Mike Welsh, who is the GOP chairman for Georgia’s 12th District, was up late in Cleveland like most of the delegation debating the fallout. Call it unbridled optimism, but he saw a glimmer of hope in the wake of the Cruz boos.
“Now the people who were waffling are solidly behind Trump. A lot of weak Cruz people are now strong Trump people,” Welsh said. “Did he commit political suicide? History will tell us. But the dynamic has changed — and I think we’ll see much more enthusiasm than before.”
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Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article from Washington.