Boehner, McConnell, Cruz: Who's now Mr. Republican?

The government shutdown and debt-ceiling standoff have shaken up the Republican Party. John Boehner has taken a hit, while Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz are up.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington after House leaders reached a last-minute agreement to avert a threatened Treasury default and reopen the government after a partial, 16-day shutdown last week.

Who’s the face of the national Republican Party now that the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis is over? We admit that this is a rhetorical question given that such a job doesn’t actually exist. It’s more like asking who’s the Big Person on Campus, which is a position bestowed by a rough consensus among underclassmen that is subject to continual reconsideration. And the recent unpleasantness in Washington has upset the old GOP consensus to an extraordinary extent.

One thing’s for sure: John Boehner’s down at the moment. Yes, the speaker of the House remains the highest-ranking elected Republican in the nation. Yes, he’s retained the loyalty of his caucus despite his troubles. Tea party conservatives appreciate that he adopted their tough stance toward Obamacare, at least until the debt crisis loomed.

But a CNN/ORC poll out this morning shows he’s now got brutal numbers with the public. Sixty-three percent of survey respondents say the Ohio Republican should be replaced as House speaker. Only 30 percent say he should stay in the job.

For Mr. Boehner, the breakdown of these numbers is even worse. Republicans as a whole are split on his leadership, with 47 percent calling for his head, and 46 percent saying he should remain. The only subgroup that’s really in his corner is conservatives, who favor his speakership 55 to 35 percent.

Meanwhile Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is up. Conservatives may rip him as a sellout for his role in the deal which ended the recent fiscal crisis, but most other GOP factions have been quietly relieved. (Or loudly relieved, if you’re Sen. John McCain.)

On Sunday Senator McConnell said flatly on CBS Face the Nation “there’ll not be another government shutdown. You can count on that.” That’s a pretty direct assertion of power, if you ask us. It also likely means he remains unworried about his tea party primary challenger back home in Kentucky, where he’s up for reelection in 2014. Frustrated conservatives have vowed to direct money to Matt Bevin, the challenger in question, but they’re going to have to dig deep to make a difference: new third-quarter totals show McConnell has $10 million on hand while Bevin raised only $220,000 from the outside, plus $600,000 of his own money.

McConnell appears confident that his real worry is the general election, where he’ll face Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled in recent days he is increasingly focusing on his Democratic opponent in next year’s Senate race and not so much on his Republican primary challenger,” writes the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Sam Youngman.

Then there’s Ted Cruz of Texas. Millions of barrels of pixels have been spilled discussing the future of the junior senator from Texas in recent weeks. He went out onto the defund-Obamacare stage and came back a star, particularly among those on the right. As we’ve written before, Senator Cruz’s willingness to fight against the odds has thrilled his supporters and made him the closest thing there is to the president of US conservatives.

But it is our belief that in so doing he has limited his future political appeal.

Look, the tea party is a minority faction in the GOP. In September, about 35 percent of Republicans identified themselves as tea party conservatives, according to Gallup. That’s a big drop from 2010, when 65 percent of the party said it supported the tea party.

Is Cruz the front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination? Well, maybe – polls show he’s a top pick at the moment. And tea party adherents are more likely to vote in primaries than other Republicans. But it’s early and he’s just had a burst of publicity. Some of that represents name recognition. And he’ll have to do some extensive tacking toward the center of the party just to win the GOP nod. Remember Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and the rest of the right-leaning GOP challengers? They lost.

Cruz has alienated many GOP establishment leaders, and they’ll be sure to make that clear as the campaign develops. That’s going to matter, argues political scientist Jonathan Bernstein on his "A plain blog about politics."

“To the extent that those future negative cues are already baked in – and I’m fairly confident that’s the case for Ted Cruz – no, he’s not the frontrunner. Not at all,” writes Mr. Bernstein.

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