A Republican senator recently told supporters that he’d vote for Bernie Sanders over Ted Cruz if they're the nominees of their respective parties. Sen. Richard Burr made the comments during a fundraiser for his own reelection, and according to AP’s Erica Werner, he “did not appear to be joking.” Burr is a conservative Republican, and the fact that a Republican senator would support Sanders over Cruz illustrates a key truth about politics: Personal relationships matter.
To be blunt, a lot of elected Republicans just hate Ted Cruz. This fact has been widely reported since Cruz began his career in the Senate, and while it may not boil down to one single reason, it seemed to begin around the time Cruz reportedly orchestrated the shutdown of the U.S. government in a failed effort to defund Obamacare.
Back in 2013, when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives but not the Senate, Cruz convinced House Republicans to block funding for the government until the rest of Congress and President Obama agreed to defund Obamacare as well. This strategy was opposed by some of the more levelheaded Republicans in Congress, including then-Speaker John Boehner, and for good reason: It was a terrible strategy with almost zero chance of success. Cruz insisted that the fight was winnable at the time ("I believe we can win this fight," he said), but later admitted his plan was "probably not" likely to succeed.
Days after the shutdown was official, we started seeing reports, like this from The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin, when several Republicans in the Senate opposed the shutdown, and as a result, they were attacked by outside conservative groups. These senators confronted Cruz at a private luncheon, demanding that he both explain his strategy to them and disown the attacks by outside groups. But Cruz stayed silent. At that point, several of his colleagues began criticizing him, and one — New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte — became "furious," according to Martin.
“It was very evident to everyone in the room that Cruz doesn’t have a strategy – he never had a strategy, and could never answer a question about what the end-game was,” one of those senators told Politico. “I just wish the 35 House members that have bought the snake oil that was sold could witness what was witnessed today at lunch.”
After the shutdown gambit failed, Cruz blamed Republicans for the defeat: “Imagine a world in which Senate Republicans united to support House Republicans,” he said. That also didn’t win him any friends in his caucus, and Sen. John McCain, the closest thing to an elder statesmen in the Republican Party, was livid.
"This has been one of the most shameful chapters I’ve seen here,” McCain told the Dallas Morning News. “We’re in a hole. We have to dig out. We weren’t going to defund Obamacare, and we weren’t going to keep the government shut down.”
Cruz’s wholesale alienation of his Republican colleagues, as well as the generally boneheaded strategy behind the shutdown, angered conservatives outside of Congress as well, including Republican strategist Karl Rove and conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin. The great irony, of course, is that Cruz is ideologically aligned with most of the conservatives who criticized him.
As Slate’s John Dickerson put it, “it’s likely that no senator has created so many enemies in his party in as short a time as the junior senator from Texas.” It’s ultimately not too big of a shock that a conservative senator like Richard Burr would prefer Bernie Sanders over a guy like Ted Cruz. After all, at least Sanders is at least a team player, albeit for the other team.
While not technically a Democrat, Sanders almost always toes the party line to help the Democratic cause. When his single-payer amendment was defeated during the fight for health care reform, for example, he wasn't happy. Nevertheless, he voted with Democrats for the final Obamacare bill, despite believing that it wasn't liberal enough, and his vote was crucial to the law's passage. Sanders also supported President Obama's reelection bid despite not being crazy about Obama's first term in office.
That's the kind of "team player" mentality that the Senate thrives on, and it's the precise value that Cruz lacks. It shouldn’t be a surprise that, as Nate Silver points out, the Republican establishment is focusing more energy on taking down Cruz than taking down Donald Trump. That was made clear when, in a somewhat incredible development, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to pass a resolution affirming that Cruz is eligible to serve as president. You can only piss off so many powerful people before the chickens come home to roost.