After several months of political shock and awe, the contours of the coming GOP primary race are starting to come a little bit into focus. We have a Florida smackdown between Jeb! and Marco! as the establishment choices and the two frontrunners, Carson and Trump, will continue to one-up each other daily with obnoxious, indecent and mind-bogglingly ignorant statements until, it is assumed, even their yahoo followers will decide that they've gone too far. Whether that's going to actually happen I'll leave to the political soothsayers. The rest of the field mostly seems to be mired in irrelevance although it's always possible that someone will surprise us.
I have made the point before that if I were a betting person, I'd put a couple of bucks on Ted Cruz to be that someone for the simple reason that he's the guy most likely to inherit the kook constituency should Trump and/or Carson finally flame out. It's unlikely that he'd get all of them, but the validators of right wing crazy, from local Iowa conservative radio superstar Steve Deace to Rush Limbaugh to Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham all see Cruz as either the guy or an excellent second choice, and they could certainly help move voters to his column. And the reason for that is that he is a true-believing, hard-core right wing zealot who checks off every single box -- from railing about "amnesty" to hiring fanatical Christian "historian" David Barton to run his Super PAC, to leading the charge against Planned Parenthood to calling President Obama "the world's leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism". He is the real thing.
Trump is running on xenophobia and his own massive ego. Carson is an orthodox social conservative. Both are non-professional politicians who revel in saying what the right wing really thinks without regard to "political correctness" (also known as good manners and basic human decency). Their voters are thrilled to have a couple of candidates who "speak for them." The problem is that neither of them are likely to be able to win a general election, and at some point enough voters may sober up and realize that. At that point they may very well look around and see that Cruz is a hated political professional, but he's just as good at channeling their rage and believes just as fervently in in every crackpot idea that they do. And while he may be a senator, it will certainly impress them to know that he's loathed by everyone in the Senate and all but the most radical right wingers in the House. If that's not a sign of true conservative principle, they don't know what is.
Cruz has plenty of money both for his campaign and in his Super Pacs. He cornered some of the big Texas billionaire money a while back. And he's systematically going about his business cultivating all the right people so he'll be in a perfect position to pick up the far righties who have gathered around Trump and Carson when the amateurs finally go over the cliff. Eliana Johnson of the National Review reported this week that the word in GOP circles is that he's running a very smart campaign and will likely be one of the last men standing. Written off as an extremist by the establishment, the Trump phenomenon apparently has some of them taking another look at Cruz to see if he might sneak up on them as he did in his Texas Senate race.
The campaign has been getting in position for a long time. Steve Deace, an Iowa-based talk-radio host who has endorsed Cruz, says that as far back as August of 2013, Cruz was asking him to set up meetings with top Iowa activists. Now, Deace says, the Texas senator has “the best [Iowa] organization I’ve ever seen,” composed of the sort of dedicated activists who put Rick Santorum over the finish line four years ago.
Cruz also has a plan beyond Iowa. He has referred to the March 1 “SEC primary,” in which eight Southern states go to the polls, as his “firewall”: that is, a backstop against whatever losses he might sustain beforehand. This year, these Southern states will go to the polls before Florida and before the traditional Super Tuesday, a change in the primary calendar instituted by RNC chairman Reince Priebus. Most of those contests, unlike the ones that precede them, are not winner-take-all, and Cruz’s goal is to win the most delegates rather than to take entire states.
Throughout the primary season, Cruz has crisscrossed the South, sweet-talking voters unaccustomed to playing an outsized role in presidential contests. “He has made the largest investment in those Southern states of any candidate,” [GOP strategist]Mackowiak says. “Most of those political leaders in those states have never been asked to participate in the process.”
Texas is one of the “SEC primary” states, and it alone will award 155 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. Cruz, of course, holds a natural advantage. His team spent over a year developing detailed knowledge of the state’s political contours just three years ago. Mackowiak says there’s a “very real possibility” that Cruz will be the overall delegate leader on March 2.
And again, Cruz has plenty of money and isn't hemorrhaging millions as Scott Walker did. He can certainly get more of it if he needs to.
And here's something to make Democrats wake up in the middle of the night screaming:
“He’s in an incredibly strong position,” says David Bossie, the president of the conservative activist group Citizens United. “If Ted Cruz does not win the nomination, he is gonna come back to the United States Senate as the most powerful senator, even without the title of majority leader.”
Cruz may just be the most powerful leader in the House as well. This piece by Steve Benen at Maddowblog lays out Cruz's influence with the rump extremists who pushed out John Boehner and show no signs of moderating their destructive tactics. He's their putative leader, king of the shutdowns, emperor of the obstructionists. Indeed, he was off the campaign trail yesterday huddling with House members about how to handle the Speaker's contest:
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has invited the Texas Republican, leading presidential contender, to address his Conservative Opportunity Society at a Wednesday breakfast meeting. The agenda, according to the invitation, is “conservative strategy for the remainder of the year.” Cruz has meddled in House affairs on several occasions, advising supportive insurgent Republicans in the chamber on key legislation and strategic matters.
So regardless of whether Cruz wins he presidency he's going to be, in Scott Walker's memorable words, "wreaking havoc on Washington." The only question is from which branch of government he's going to be doing it.
Cruz is a very smart fellow and a very extreme ideologue. That's a potent combination. In a different time his far right politics and the antagonism of the establishment would probably lock him out of serious presidential contention. But this is a different year, and the GOP base is showing a strong appetite for fanaticism and demagoguery and see establishment animosity as a badge of honor. And as luck would have it, Trump and Carson are so far out that they are making Cruz's brand look downright respectable by comparison. When they fall, he'll be there to pick up the banner and run with it.