Will the Death of Antonin Scalia Be a Turning Point for Ted Cruz?

WEST COLUMBIA, SC - FEBRUARY 19:  Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to voters during a campaign e
WEST COLUMBIA, SC - FEBRUARY 19: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to voters during a campaign event February 19, 2016 in West Columbia, South Carolina. Cruz continued to campaign for the upcoming GOP primary in South Carolina. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The death of Antonin Scalia might have come just in time for Ted Cruz. South Carolina is supposed to be the state where Cruz makes his stand against Donald Trump, where he vanquishes the New York liberal. A win in South Carolina would -- according to plan -- give Cruz momentum going into the "SEC primaries" that will quickly follow on March 1st.

No one talks about the "deep south" anymore, or uses the term confederacy for that matter. Now, it is the SEC primaries. A bit more cosmopolitan. More Peachtree Center, less Duck Dynasty. For non-football fans, the SEC is the Southeastern Conference, and the SEC primaries include Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, with Louisiana following shortly thereafter. It is the most recent iteration of Super Tuesday, the effort begun in the 1980s to put a southern, conservative stamp on the presidential nominating process.

South Carolina and the SEC primaries are essential to the Cruz campaign. Unlike the traditional strategy of going to the right in the primaries and tacking back to the center in the general election, Ted Cruz aims to turn out evangelical and conservative voters in both the primaries and in the fall with a campaign built on passion and commitment to conservative principles, and state-of-the-art micro-targeting of the electorate. The deep south, the states of the Southeastern Conference, have a larger share of evangelical and conservative voters. It is Ted Cruz country and his plan after winning Iowa was to replicate that win in South Carolina and then roll up delegates across the south.

Donald Trump was never supposed to be in the picture. The Cruz campaign introduced the language of "lanes" that has dominated analysis of this year's battle for the Republican nomination. According to the Cruz strategy, Cruz would dominate the conservative lane, taking out the Rick Santorums and Mike Huckabees of the world, while Jeb Bush was expected to take out Marco Rubio and whatever other contenders might show up in the establishment lane by early March. Then it would be a mano-a-mano death match for the soul of the GOP between Cruz and Jeb.

Lane theory has proven to be a catchy concept, even though things have not quite worked out as envisioned. Donald Trump has complicated the lane paradigm, as he does not fit into any narrow political label or lane. In New Hampshire and in pre-election polling in South Carolina, Trump has dominated across every slice of the GOP primary electorate -- moderate, conservative, Tea Party and libertarian -- and according to a recent CNN poll, Trump leads Cruz nearly two-to-one in South Carolina among white evangelical conservatives.

Last week, the race in South Carolina appeared to be upended when Donald Trump went full Michael Moore at the nationally televised Republican debate, attacking George W. Bush for lying about weapons of mass destruction, launching the Iraq War, creating turmoil in the Middle East and costing the nation trillions of dollars. It was a rant that one would have imagined coming from Bernie Sanders, castigating Hillary once again for her Iraq war vote, but, to the shock of the listening audience, it was the leading Republican candidate taking on the entire Bush clan a week before the vote in South Carolina, a state widely viewed as Bush country.

Despite the shock that rippled across the Republican landscape, Trump's poll numbers did not crater after his anti-Bush tirade. Instead, in the week leading up to the South Carolina vote, Trump maintained his lead, while Cruz's numbers appeared to have flatlined and trends suggested that Marco Rubio might pass Cruz into second place.

The death of Antonin Scalia has offered Cruz the opportunity to refocus conservative attention on the future of the Supreme Court and increase the urgency of his message. Cruz quickly painted the question of the replacement of Scalia in stark, dystopian terms. If Scalia were to be replaced by an Obama nominee -- or one selected by Bernie, Hillary, or Donald Trump for that matter -- Cruz described the world that would unfold as a place of unfettered abortion on demand, the obliteration of the Second Amendment, and the end of liberty in America. And he set the requirements for a new justice in extreme terms, stating specifically that even a nominee comparable to Chief Justice John Roberts would fail his test of fealty to conservative principals and declaring that he would filibuster any nominee that did not meet his standard.

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared within minutes of the announcement of Scalia's death that the nomination of a successor should be left to the next president, McConnell was not focused on President Obama as much as he was seeking to preempt Ted Cruz. He knew that Cruz would swiftly try to seize control of the situation, and so he has. McConnell's comments might have seemed extreme to some, but if he did not engage the anti-Obama base, he would quickly have been sidelined by Cruz, whom he has watched successfully undermine the regular order of Senate business whenever it served his political ambitions. If Cruz proved himself unwilling to yield to McConnell's leadership when Cruz was a backbencher in the Senate, McConnell knew that there was no limit to what Cruz would be prepared to do now that his presidential ambitions are on the line. Cruz's threat of a filibuster validated McConnell's concern; after all, who threatens to use the filibuster when their party is in the majority?

Mitch McConnell is fighting a war on multiple fronts. A political pragmatist who has been battling House Republicans for the past year to demonstrate that the GOP can be a responsible governing party, McConnell's preferred course would be to have the Senate consider an Obama nominee in due course, and then reject it if they so chose. But his room to maneuver is now limited by Cruz's eagerness to use the Supreme Court issue to advance his presidential ambitions. McConnell understands that a Democrat may be elected in the fall, and that any justice nominated by Barack Obama under the current circumstances would likely be more acceptable than whomever a President Clinton or Sanders might put forth fresh off a victory in November. But he also knows that his efforts to impose regular order would only lead to a Cruz filibuster and support Cruz's likelihood of winning the nomination. And McConnell, along with most of establishment Washington, believes not just that Cruz is unelectable in a general election, but that a Cruz defeat could cost GOP control of the Senate along the way.

Just when Cruz thought he had achieved a tactical advantage this week by his aggressive stance with respect to the Supreme Court, Donald Trump trumped him once again and won the news cycle. Cruz may have found a new tack to take on the President and the GOP establishment, but Trump took on the Pope. Like Trump's tirade against George Bush, some might have assumed that picking a fight with the Pontiff would be a losing bet, but in largely evangelical South Carolina, as well as much of the south, rebuffing the Pope may actually play well. It is notable that when asked his view on the kerfuffle between Trump and the Holy See, Marco Rubio -- himself a Roman Catholic -- came down on the side of his Republican adversary.

Saturday will tell a lot about how both the nomination is going to play out, as well as Ted Cruz's continuing battle to usurp the leadership of the Senate. If Cruz outperforms pre-primary polls in South Carolina, as he did in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the passion around the death and looming replacement of Antonin Scalia should enable him to draw an increased share of evangelical and conservative to his crusade, offering him the prospect of pulling even with, if not ultimately overtaking Trump as the campaign rolls across the South. If he does, McConnell will be hard pressed to give ground on his commitment to block consideration of an Obama nominee. If, on the other hand, Cruz falters and is overtaken by Rubio, McConnell will have greater room to maneuver, and the Republican establishment may finally get the race that they have been hoping for: Marco Rubio going one-on-one with Donald Trump -- the only candidate competing in the Trump lane -- with Ted Cruz, the candidate they most revile, fading from contention.