Republican Party prepares for Ted Cruz's next act

Story highlights

  • Cruz is widely expected to run again for president in 2020 if Donald Trump loses a general election match-up
  • If Trump loses, Cruz could make the case that the outcome would have been far different with him as the nominee

Washington (CNN)Texas Sen. Ted Cruz promised his party Tuesday that he is "not suspending our fight for liberty."

And that is precisely what many Senate Republicans fear.
    As he returns to Capitol Hill after ending his presidential campaign, Cruz has grown more powerful and influential with core GOP voters, giving him a major platform to upend his party leadership's most carefully constructed plans. And as Congress prepares to deal with major national issues -- including a rescue plan for Puerto Rico requiring immediate action and government funding in the fall -- many believe Cruz could use his new bully pulpit to wreak havoc on Capitol Hill should he want to.
    With Cruz widely expected to run again for president in 2020 if Donald Trump loses a general election match-up with Hillary Clinton, the Texas freshman could once again use his fights with Senate Republicans as the basis of his run. And that is enough to unnerve many Republicans.
    Asked about Cruz over the next four years, retiring Indiana Sen. Dan Coats -- a leading Cruz critic -- said: "All I know is I won't be here to enjoy the theater."
    A big question for Cruz now is whether he'll run for reelection for a second Senate term in 2018. While he would be heavily favored to win in Texas, he'd have to intensify his focus on local issues over the next two years and build a war chest in case a threat to his seat emerges.
    While he'd likely keep his seat, worrying about reelection could undermine his effort to build a national campaign and run again for president in 2020. And an upset could end his White House hopes.
    Two GOP senators who also ran in 2016, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, have not ruled out a repeat presidential run and both are viewed as likely to do so again. Paul, however, is running for reelection this year, hoping to use the Senate as a springboard to a possible future candidacy -- while Rubio is quitting the Senate at year's end, planning to stay visible outside of government.
    And though many in the party establishment don't like Cruz, some top Republicans argued that the Texas senator would have been a better general election nominee than Trump. Not only is he a disciplined candidate with views more in line with traditional Republicans, but there would be a silver lining, they believed, if he lost: It would be hard for Cruz to revive his political career.
    Now if Trump loses, Cruz could feel emboldened, making the case that the outcome would have been far different with him as the nominee. And as the runner-up in 2016, Cruz would be viewed as a formidable candidate heading into 2020.
    Still, part of Cruz's ability to rebound depends on whether he helps unify the GOP or keeps his distance from Trump after a bitter campaign. While Cruz plans to be active as a surrogate in down-ticket races, he could anger Trump supporters if he declines to help the party's presumptive nominee.
    At Tuesday night's concession speech, Cruz touched on a wide array of issues, from Obamacare to national security, but he avoided one topic: Donald Trump.