Ted Cruz is the true GOP dark horse: How he's winning over the fanatical right at exactly the right time

When Donald Trump's campaign collapses, as it almost certainly still will, Cruz is well positioned to fill the void

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 26, 2015 6:40PM (EDT)

Sen. Ted Cruz  (AP)
Sen. Ted Cruz (AP)

While Donald Trump continues to inspire what he calls "the silent majority" (and everyone else calls the racist rump of the GOP) and the other assumed front-runners Walker, Rubio and Bush flounder and flop around, another candidate is quietly gathering support from a discrete, but powerful, GOP constituency. As Peter Montgomery of Right Wing watch pointed out earlier this week, Ted Cruz is making a huge play for the religious right. And they like what they're seeing.

Montgomery notes that influential conservative Christian leaders have been getting progressively more anxious about the fact that they've been asked to pony up for less-than-devout candidates like McCain and somewhat alien religious observers like Mitt Romney when they are the reliable foot-soldiers for the Republican party who deliver votes year in and year out. With this year's massive field from which to choose including hardcore true-believers Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum, these religious leaders are looking closely at all the candidates, but are homing in on Cruz.

Montgomery writes:

One big sign came late last month, when news that broke that Farris and Dan Wilks had given $15 million to Keep the Promise, a pro-Cruz super PAC. Not coincidentally, David Lane told NBC News last year that, “With Citizens United…you can have somebody who gives $15 or $20 million into a super PAC and that changes the game.” The billionaire Wilks brothers from Texas have become sugar daddies to right-wing groups generally, and to David Lane’s Pastors and Pews events specifically.

A couple weeks later, Cruz stopped by the headquarters of the American Family Association. Lane’s American Renewal Project operates under the AFA’s umbrella, and Cruz sounded like he was reading Lane’s talking points. Cruz told AFA President Tim Wildmon that mobilizing evangelical Christian voters is the key to saving America, saying, “Nothing is more important in the next 18 months than that the body of Christ rise up and that Christians stand up, that pastors stand up and lead.”

Cruz held a "Rally for Religious Liberty" in Iowa last week that had the influential Christian right radio host Steve Deace swooning with admiration as Cruz carried on about Christian persecution. He thundered, “You want to know what this election is about? We are one justice away from the Supreme Court saying ‘every image of God shall be torn down!" to massive applause from the audience.

The religious right feels battered after their massive loss on marriage equality. And they expect their candidates to do something about it. It appears they've decided the destruction of Planned Parenthood is that crusade and Cruz is only too willing to play to the crowd. According to the Washington Post:

Sen. Ted Cruz, who has assiduously courted evangelicals throughout his presidential run, will take a lead role in the launch this week of an ambitious 50-state campaign to end taxpayer support for Planned Parenthood — a move that is likely to give the GOP candidate a major primary-season boost in the fierce battle for social-conservative and evangelical voters.

More than 100,000 pastors received e-mail invitations over the weekend to participate in conference calls with Cruz on Tuesday in which they will learn details of the plan to mobilize churchgoers in every congressional district beginning Aug. 30. The requests were sent on the heels of the Texas Republican’s “Rally for Religious Liberty,” which drew 2,500 people to a Des Moines ballroom Friday.

“The recent exposure of Planned Parenthood’s barbaric practices . . . has brought about a pressing need to end taxpayer support of this institution,” Cruz said in the e-mail call to action distributed by the American Renewal Project, an organization of conservative pastors.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Cruz says he plans to shut down the government this fall unless Congress agrees to stop all funding of Planned Parenthood. And he's making a big bet that his campaign will benefit from it:

Cruz implored more than a thousand pastors and religious leaders on Tuesday to "preach from the pulpit" against Planned Parenthood and rally public support for an amendment defunding the family provider in the must-pass federal budget bill in November. If Congress attaches the defunding amendment to the budget instead of holding a vote on the standalone bill, it cannot keep funding Planned Parenthood without shutting down the whole federal government.

"Here is the challenge," the presidential hopeful explained on the national conference call. "The leadership of both parties, both the Democrats and Republicans, want an empty show vote. They want a vote on Planned Parenthood that has no teeth or no consequence, which allows Republicans to vote for defunding, Democrats to vote for continuing funding, and nothing to change. But the leadership of both parties have publicly said they do not want the vote tied to any legislation that must pass."

"It will be a decision of the president's and the president's alone whether he would veto funding for the federal government because of a commitment to ensuring taxpayer dollars continue to flow to what appears to be a national criminal organization," Cruz said.

As I said, the religious right is bursting to reassert its clout in the GOP and this is where they've decided to stand their ground. Cruz is going to lead them into battle.

That's not to say that he's running solely as a religious right candidate. Byron York reports that at a GOP candidate event last Monday in South Carolina featuring Cruz, Ben Carson and Scott Walker, Cruz received the most thunderous ovation. His speech wasn't solely focused on the Christian persecution angle but he delivered what York called "an almost martial address" beating his chest about Iran and railing against sanctuary cities with the same fervor he delivered his put-away line: "No man who doesn't begin every day on his knees is fit to stand in the Oval Office!"

York asked 53 people afterwards who did the best and 44 said Cruz, 6 said Carson and 3 said Walker. (Poor Walker is so dizzy from his immigration flip-flops that he's stopped talking about it altogether, which the crowd did not like one little bit.) Cruz, on the other hand, has a way of making everything from EPA standards to the debt ceiling sound like a religious war which pretty much reflects the GOP base's worldview as well.

Cruz is a true believer, but he's also a political strategist. He has said repeatedly that his base is Tea Party voters and religious conservatives. In key Republican primaries like Iowa and South Carolina nearly 50 percent of the voters define themselves as conservative evangelicals. Cruz is betting that he can turn them out to vote for him.

Nobody knows what's going to happen in this crazy GOP race. If Trump flames out, his voters will scatter and it will matter who has lined up the other institutional factions in the party. While everyone else spars with Trump and tries to out-immigrant bash each other, Ted Cruz is quietly working the egos and the passions of the millions of bruised conservative Christians who are desperate for a hero. When all the smoke has cleared the field he may very well be one of the last men standing.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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2016 Elections Elections 2016 Gop Primary Ted Cruz The Religious Right