CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Wednesday night tore the scab off the still-healing wound inflicted on the Republican Party by his bitter primary battle with nominee Donald Trump, and then Trump himself poured salt in it.
In a stunning speech, Cruz pointedly refused to endorse Trump as the party’s nominee for president despite boos and catcalls from the crowd demanding that he do so. As it became obvious no endorsement was coming, security officials hustled his wife, Heidi Cruz, from the floor when some members of the crowd turned on her.
Virginia delegate Ken Cuccinelli, a former state attorney general and a close Cruz ally, said he had to place himself between Mrs. Cruz and members of his own delegation who became physically threatening.
Then, as Cruz reached the end of his remarks, Trump himself unexpectedly emerged from a doorway at the back of the hall, prompting a roar from the crowd that drowned out the end of the Texas senator’s remarks.
The drama made the acceptance speech delivered later by Indiana governor and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence more than a little anticlimactic, as most of the discussion after the night’s events had ended centered on whether real party unity was even possible anymore with Trump at the top of the ticket and a hardline conservative like Cruz -- who came in second in the GOP primary -- refusing to bend the knee.
In the halls of the arena afterward, many attendees were furious with Cruz. But not all. A strong anti-Trump element remains in the GOP, and some Cruz supporters saw his speech as a heroic stand for conservative principles.
“What you heard tonight was Ted Cruz,” said Dianne Williams, an alternate delegate from Texas who had been allowed onto the floor for the Cruz speech. “He’s not going to go against his principles. He’s not going to lie. He doesn’t have to. He is who he is ... he’s not going to compromise his values for Trump.”
Like others, Williams predicted that once Republican voters get over their whirlwind romance with Trump, they will appreciate what they gave up in Cruz.
“In four years, if Trump wins, or even if Hillary wins, people are going to see how right this man was and how wrong they were,” Williams said. “Let me tell you, if you’ve read the Bible you know the Easter story, and it was the governor’s choice that every year he would let a prisoner go.”
In the story, the people of Jerusalem are given the choice to have the death sentence of one prisoner revoked by the Roman authorities. The two candidates are Jesus of Nazareth and accused criminal Barabbas.
“We have chosen Barabbas,” Williams said.
Texas delegate Deborah Kelting, also a Cruz supporter, said, “I’m going to quote Winston Churchill. Some people will change their principles for their party and some people change their party for their principles.”
She said the GOP base would come to regret aligning with Trump, predicting, “There is going to be a rude awakening in the next four years.”
“They’re out there, crying for the balloons,” she said, referring to the thousands of balloons suspended in nets above the arena floor, ready to be released at the end of the convention Thursday. “But what they think they’re getting and what they’re getting are not the same.”
While some in the Texas delegation were incensed with Trump’s entrance on top of Cruz, others were ready to give the candidate the benefit of the doubt.
“It’s just probably unfortunate timing, because Secret Service sort of herds the president, and he got there and they tried to get him into his seat as quick as possible,” said Texas delegate Brian McAuliffe.
Representatives of the Trump campaign were plainly furious afterward, but how Cruz actually wound up on the stage delivering a call for voters to “vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution” without mentioning the party’s chosen candidate was unclear. The Trump team had Cruz’s speech in advance -- it was sent to reporters under embargo well before he began speaking. Trump himself tweeted that he had seen the speech two hours in advance “but let him speak anyway.”
A top Cruz aide, again on Twitter, claimed that Cruz had personally told Trump two days ago that he would not endorse him.
Perhaps in his acceptance speech tonight, Trump will find a way to bind up the wounds of his party after last night’s mini civil war. But it would be a dramatic departure from character for him to de-escalate conflict rather than fueling it.