The temporary alliance between Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, formed to deny Donald Trump the Republican presidential nomination, was already in danger of fraying to the point of irrelevance Monday, only hours after it was announced to great fanfare.
The agreement, in which the two candidates agreed to cede forthcoming states to one another — Kasich would, most crucially, stand down in Indiana’s primary next Tuesday to give Cruz a better chance to defeat Trump there, while Cruz would leave Oregon and New Mexico to Kasich — carried the stench of desperation, but initially it seemed like a breakthrough.
Cruz trumpeted what he called the “big news” in Indiana, a state that appears pivotal to stopping Trump from winning a majority of delegates. “John Kasich has decided to pull out of Indiana to give us a head-to-head contest with Donald Trump,” the Texas senator said.
But at his own campaign stop in Philadelphia on Monday, Kasich tamped down Cruz’s triumphalism. Voters in Indiana, Kasich said, “ought to vote for me,” even if he would not be campaigning publicly there. He added, “I don’t see this as any big deal.”
And while Kasich’s campaign canceled his public appearances in the state, the governor was still slated to visit Indianapolis on Tuesday for a fundraising event at the Columbia Club. And he still had meetings scheduled with a series of Indiana Republicans, including Gov. Mike Pence, according to a leading Republican in the state.
If Kasich appeared to violate the spirit of the nonaggression pact with Cruz, he was not alone. Cruz’s campaign privately advised supporters Sunday not to endorse tactical voting, whereby his supporters might switch their allegiance to Kasich in states where the Ohio governor is running stronger against Trump. “We never tell voters who to vote for,” read the suggested Cruz talking point. “We’re simply letting folks know where we will be focusing our time and resources.”
Trump, who has taunted his opponents throughout the race for their Keystone Kops approach to undermining his campaign, seemed to relish the continuing strain between his two remaining rivals for the nomination. On Twitter, he mocked “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and “1 for 38 Kasich,” referring to the latter’s dismal winning record in the Republican race, for being unable to beat him on their own.
Allies of both Cruz and Kasich did not exactly disagree with that assessment, and acknowledged that the prospect of imminent disaster in Indiana had been the impetus to finalize their deal, such as it is.
With Trump expected to win all five of the East Coast states that vote Tuesday, the next opportunity to slow his campaign will come a week later in Indiana. Republicans believe he must be stopped there if they are to deny him the nomination.
If Cruz cannot win Indiana, the other states covered in the deal — New Mexico and Oregon — may become irrelevant in the face of Trump’s blitz toward the 1,237-delegate mark needed to win the nomination.
“Indiana is a must-win for Ted Cruz, and it’s a must-win for anybody who doesn’t think Donald Trump should be the nominee,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative group opposed to Trump and supportive of Cruz. The group is airing an ad in Indiana urging voters to vote for Cruz, not Kasich, to stop Trump, and officials said they intended to keep it on the air despite the agreement.
After that point, McIntosh said, the path for Cruz would be to amass as many delegates as possible in May, and then score big in California on the last day of voting in June. He acknowledged that Trump would make significant gains Tuesday in states like Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
“Tomorrow on the Eastern Seaboard is still kind of the old race, where Cruz and Kasich are divided and let Trump win,” McIntosh said Monday. “This development came, really, at the close of that.”
Charles R. Black Jr., an adviser to Kasich, said it would be helpful to his candidate — and “a big blow to Trump” — for Cruz to win Indiana. The point of announcing the deal, Black said, was to indicate to outside super PACs where the campaigns and candidates were marshaling their resources.
Black played down the degree to which voters would cast their ballots strategically, switching allegiance between candidates to thwart Trump. “Either the guy gets to 1,237 or he doesn’t,” he said. “Voters don’t focus on this tactical, inside baseball stuff.”
Backers of both challengers say the deal raises the pressure on both candidates to defeat Trump in a head-to-head contest. For months, rivals of the Republican front-runner have claimed that he has succeeded only because the anti-Trump vote has been spread among so many alternative candidates.
That argument appeared to falter in New York last week, when Trump won 60 percent of the vote and captured nearly all of the state’s delegates, winning even in areas that once seemed inviting for Cruz and Kasich.
Now that each of them has been granted a cleaner shot against Trump — in different states, and at different moments over the next few weeks — Cruz and Kasich will have no easy excuse if Trump continues to prevail.
On Monday, both candidates swatted away questions about whether the agreement was one of desperation.
Kasich grew quickly agitated at the suggestion: “Me? No, I’m not desperate — are you?” he asked a reporter. “Are you desperate? Because I’m not.”
And Cruz denied that the effort to stop Trump was subverting the will of the people.
“This is entirely about the will of the people,” he said. “This is about winning the votes of the Hoosier State.”
Trump appeared unbothered Monday, quickly reveling in the instant confusion surrounding his rivals’ plans.
“Kasich just announced that he wants the people of Indiana to vote for him,” he wrote on Twitter. “Typical politician — can’t make a deal work.”