As the Iowa primary draws near, the Republican race has come down to some basic questions: Can Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign maintain its support? And if it can’t, where do his votes go?
It seems unlikely his voters would flock to candidates like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio—not with the deep animus flowing towards the Republican establishment. Alternately, if Trump’s voters flee him because they deem the reality television star unelectable, why would they turn to fellow insurgents like Ben Carson or Mike Huckabee, who are even harder to envision in the Oval Office?
Standing in the gap is Senator Ted Cruz, a candidate every bit as uncompromising and angry as Trump—but with enough experience in elected office to seem plausible. Cruz also has a significantly strong campaign infrastructure, deep-pocketed donors, and skyrocketing poll numbers.
If Republican voters continue to support him at this rate, Cruz will become easily the most conservative major presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater.
Cruz’s strategy is pretty clear. Forget reaching out to minority voters, young women, or moderate voters sitting on the fence. Go hard at the GOP’s true base—white Americans more likely to be male, religious, and possessing clear conservative views—and motivate them as energetically as he can to show up at the polls.
On the campaign trail, Cruz is quick on his feet and armed with a silky-smooth stump speech that is delivered word-for-word every time. Not unlike Donald Trump, though on a smaller scale, Cruz is good at creating small “controversies” that earn him both free media exposure and the adoration of hard-right voters. At a recent event in Charles City, Iowa, Cruz was asked about Hillary Clinton’s role in Benghazi. He noted that when his daughter lies, she gets a “spanking,” and that “voters have a way of administering a spanking” as well.
The crowd loved it, but reporters on the tour quickly wrote up the exchange with a slight twinge of horror at a “spanking” analogy that involved the most prominent woman in American politics. By the time Cruz got to his next event in Cresco two hours later, “spanking” was trending on Twitter back in Washington.
Cruz knows when he’s baiting reporters, and relishes it—and so do his supporters. One of Cruz’s big laugh lines on the campaign trail is that, by the end of his presidency, “there’s gonna be a whole lot of newspaper reporters and editors and journalists that have checked themselves into therapy.”
About 12 hours before Ted Cruz began his “Cruzin’ to Caucus” bus tour that day, a Philadelphia police officer was shot by a local man claiming allegiance to ISIS. Right-wing radio buzzed with the news all morning. Rush Limbaugh began several segments with updates on the officer’s condition.
When Cruz got to a lunchtime event in Osage (population 3,619), a man who said both his sons were sheriff’s deputies asked about the shooting and opined that “We need to either send ISIS running, or put them in their hole in the sand.” ”Along with your titanium spine,” he asked Cruz, “do you have the brass ones to do that also?”
Cruz, who had already worked the shooting into his normal stump speech, thanked the man for “officially the most colorful question” he’d received on the bus tour, and then teed off on President Obama, not unsubtly blaming the administration for the officer’s mortal wounds.
“One of the most shameful things we’ve seen in the last seven years is President Obama and his attorneys general repeatedly attacking and vilifying law enforcement, holding them out for public ridicule and attack,” he said. Cruz pivoted to the events in Ferguson and Baltimore, and noted the increased crime rate after the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray—also Obama’s fault. “What happens when you attack cops for doing their job?” Cruz asked. “They naturally pull back.”
There was a time, about a year ago, when the anti-establishment leader of the Iowa polls could have sounded much different. Senator Rand Paul was widely considered to be a dark horse in Iowa, where libertarian voters delivered his father a third-place finish in 2012, only three points behind the winner, Rick Santorum. Paul, who opened an office in Detroit in late 2013 for conservative outreach to the black community, traveled to Ferguson to meet with local leaders after the killing of Michael Brown. He openly backed a voter drive in black neighborhoods there. “If we want to win elections, we’ve got to try to compete for African-American votes,” Paul said at the time.
Cruz has taken that strategy—backed by the Republican National Committee in its famous postmortem following Mitt Romney’s loss—and essentially set it on fire. He has no inclination to talk about police relations with black communities, other than to defend law enforcement. Cruz has pushed an equally uncompromising line on immigration reform. He routinely bashes “amnesty” and uses it as a cudgel against Senator Marco Rubio, who lent his name to bipartisan immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship in 2013.
On his bus tour of Iowa, Cruz was accompanied by the state’s fourth-district Congressman, Steve King, who is arguably the most powerful foe of immigration reform in either chamber of Congress. Long before Trump, King pioneered painting undocumented immigrants as drug mules and criminals, claiming that many have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Cruz made King a national co-chair of his presidential campaign.
In stark contrast to anything Rand Paul might have put together—a new Republican party for a changing America—Cruz clearly sees Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign as a template. Reagan advanced Nixon’s Southern strategy of exploiting racial tensions to turn out white voters (he began his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a small town where civil-rights activists were murdered several years prior) and also cemented the evangelical right as a fundamental part of the Republican coalition.
Evangelicals helped deliver Republicans the White House in all but two elections from 1980 until 2004, but its influence has waned in recent years. Cruz’s desire to revive it was obvious from day one of his campaign, which Cruz launched at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
In early January, Cruz stood alongside evangelical leader James Dobson in Iowa and declared, “If we allow non-believers to elect our leaders, we shouldn’t be surprised when our government doesn’t reflect our values.”
Throughout his January tour of Iowa, Cruz began his stump speech by invoking God’s blessing for the state. When he outlined five actions he planned to take on his first day in office, three were obvious appeals to evangelicals. First, President Cruz would immediately beginning a federal investigation into Planned Parenthood “and those horrible videos.”
He would also issue a government-wide edict against “religious persecution,” with the implication that it is currently targeting Christians. Cruz said under his administration, American soldiers would enjoy “the right to seek out and worship God almighty with all of [their] hearts, minds, and souls, and their superior officer has nothing to say about it.” (American troops are already free to pray, but Cruz is referencing a conspiracy theory popular on the evangelical right that Obama banned prayer in the military. In reality, the Defense Department simply issued a rule against proselytizing, which forbid officers and chaplains from trying to convert people under their command to a different faith.)
Cruz added that he would shred the Iranian nuclear deal, and “begin the process of moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the once and eternal capital of Israel.”
One key test for the most conservative evangelicals is whether a candidate would ban abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Marco Rubio, also making a play for evangelicals, doesn’t support a rape exception, but does his best to avoid saying so directly. “My goal is to save as many lives as possible, and I’ll support anything that does that. Even if it has exceptions,” he has said.
But Cruz doesn’t sugar-coat it. When a man posed the question to Cruz at a rally in Decorah, Cruz said he is “absolutely” opposed abortion in the case of rape. “As horrible as that crime is, it is not the baby’s fault,” he said. “It is not the baby’s fault, and it does not make sense to blame the child, the innocent child who through no fault of himself or herself—it makes no sense to sacrifice that child’s life.” After some heckling by a crowd that was clearly on Cruz’s side, the questioner left before Cruz finished his answer.
By speaking the right language, and sewing up the endorsement of people like Falwell and Bob Vander Plaats, the hugely influential and politically active evangelical leader in Iowa who backed both of the state’s primary winners in 2008 (Mike Huckabee) and 2012 (Rick Santorum), Cruz has captured the religious-right vote there. His current polling lead in Iowa is largely due to strong evangelical support; in a recent poll, Cruz had twice as many evangelical supporters as Ben Carson, and three times as many as Donald Trump.
Cruz closed every campaign stop with a plea to attendees: that they pray every day until the caucus. “Just one minute saying, ‘Father God, please continue this awakening, continue this revival. Awaken the body of Christ to pull us back from the abyss,” he implored, before reciting Second Chronicles 7:14, where God speaks to Solomon.
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear their prayers and I will forgive their sins, and I will heal their lands.” After the recitation, Cruz noted it was the bible verse Ronald Reagan had his hand upon when he took the oath of office in 1981.
This all represents a serious rebellion against Republican leadership on the strategic level, but Cruz’s policy apostasy is much less pronounced. Comprehensive immigration reform would likely be off the table under President Cruz, and he would fully eliminate the corporate tax instead of just lowering it. He’s also fond of red-meat policy proposals like “shutting down the IRS.”
But broadly speaking, Cruz’s platform is a fairly standard menu of slashing tax cuts, steep deregulation (he likes to joke that the only difference between locusts and regulators are that “you can’t use pesticide on regulators”) and increased defense spending. He’s somebody that Republicans in Congress would find generally agreeable.
Why, then, hasn’t a single Republican governor or Senator endorsed Cruz’s campaign?
The party establishment correctly sees Cruz as someone who has demagogued them for strictly personal gain. In 2013, congressional Republicans were well-positioned to extract some big concessions from Obama in budget negotiations after the president was weakened by the disastrous roll-out of healthcare.gov, and as nervous Senate Democrats looked ahead to a rough midterm election. But Cruz swooped in and single-handedly demanded the impossible goal of stopping Obamacare in the budget deal.
The conservative grassroots quickly mobilized to this cause, the government shut down when Democrats refused to give in to the obviously over-reaching demands. Republican favorability ratings plummeted, albeit temporarily, and when the dust settled and a budget deal was signed, the GOP didn’t get much of anything.
The only Republican to benefit was Ted Cruz, gaining both fame and fortune from grassroots conservatives after the episode. His fundraising totals reached new heights in the final quarter of 2013, and he is now armed with campaign trail stories about taking on the weak-kneed wimps who lead the GOP. He often jokes that he needs “a food taster in the member’s dining room back in Washington.”
For all of their loathing, GOP elites seem powerless to stop Cruz. He has three large SuperPACs backing him, each funded by a different ultra-wealthy benefactor. Robert Mercer, a hedge-fund billionaire who got extremely rich by using computer models to outsmart the stock market, is one of the financiers; Mercer’s company has been the subject of both IRS and congressional investigations for potentially shorting the federal government a whopping $6 billion in taxes. (Mercer must love Cruz’s line about abolishing the IRS.)
The Wilks family of Texas, who made their fortune in fracking, funds another of the Cruz Super PACs. Their interest isn’t just energy extraction, however—the Wilks see themselves as religious crusaders trying to reinstill Christian values in a lost nation. One of their preoccupations is teaching the Bible in public schools. “[Students] are being taught the other ideas, the gay agenda, every day out in the world so we have to stand up and explain to them that that’s not real, that’s not proper, it’s not right,” Farris Wilks explained recently on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
The third Super PAC is funded primarily by Toby Neugebauer, an energy investor from Texas, who donated $10 million earlier this year, one of the largest individual donations of the 2016 cycle. Neugebauer is a strictly transactional player, who in the past flew then-Governor Rick Perry around on his private jet to ply him for better access to shale formations in north Texas.
Flush with all this cash, Cruz has paid keen attention to new rules governing the Republican primary. After 2012, when Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum mounted uncomfortably strong challenges to Mitt Romney, the RNC made a new rule that nobody can be nominated without winning a majority of the vote in at least eight primary states. This was designed to prevent insurgent candidates from running close second and thirds to the chosen establishment nominee in more moderate states, racking up potentially enough delegates to win or at least force a convention fight.
But this rule is already backfiring on the RNC, because with such a crowded field of candidates, nobody is foreseeably going to get above 50 percent in any of the early states—and nobody will until a lot of candidates drop out.
As noted by The Wall Street Journal last year, Cruz spotted this potential problem and began quietly sending emissaries to Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands. Each of these territories counts as a primary state, and if Cruz can run the table in those territories, he already has five of the eight majority votes needed to qualify for the Republican nomination. Cruz’s former Harvard Law professor, Alan Dershowitz, has called Cruz “off-the-charts brilliant,” and you certainly get a sense of that watching Cruz make his run for the White House.
Combined with the fact Cruz is running a close second nationally in polls and is well-positioned to grab any Trump voters who eventually abandon ship, he may just be the most well-positioned candidate for the Republican nomination. It seems unlikely Cruz’s retrograde approach to politics would be successful in a general election, but if he gets that far, he’d become one of only two people who can feasibly become president. He must like those odds.