(AP/Nati Harnik)

Ted Cruz's plan to conquer America: How the senator from wing-nut nation could win the GOP nomination

The Tea Party favorite has quietly been building momentum. If Trump falls, he could be one to grab the ball and run


Heather Digby Parton
December 2, 2015 6:00PM (UTC)

I've been writing for some months about Ted Cruz's dark horse candidacy and his very smart, under-the-radar strategy. He has lined up plenty of money, even seriously angering the Bush clan by bagging some major Texas billionaires they feel he has no right to claim. And he's been assiduously working all the grassroots conservative organizations which are his natural constituencies. Trump may be speaking their language but as a thrice married denizen of Gomorrah (aka New York City) he's an immigrant to their conservative culture with some suspicious ways about him. They may forgive all that in the end and stick with the showman,but Ted Cruz is much more familiar, a favorite son of wingnut nation, and all those Republicans who hate the status quo may turn their lonely eyes to him if the Trump novelty finally wear off.

Cruz has been counting all along on picking up the pieces of the outsider "anti-establishment" campaigns as they started to fade and the true blue conservatives started to come back to their roots. Back in August,  it was clear that he was working Iowa's social conservatives very hard and that work is earning dividends as Ben Carson fades and Cruz moves in as the authentic evangelical savior. The polls now show him taking over 2nd place in Iowa and he has a good chance to win it. That was, of course, the plan.

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But he does have other hills to climb, as Nate Cohn points out in this piece in the New York Times:

“Very conservative” voters can propel Mr. Cruz to victory in Iowa, a caucus state, but according to exit poll data from 2008 and 2012, those types of voters represent a smaller share of the electorate in every primary state. To win, he will need to broaden his appeal, count on a divided field or hope to face a candidate with even more limited appeal.

In the most recent Quinnipiac survey of Iowa, he had a large 16-point lead among voters who described themselves as “very conservative.” With 38 percent of their support, his strength there was greater than that of any other candidate in any ideological category. But he held the support of just 14 percent of “somewhat conservative” voters and a mere 6 percent of self-described moderate or liberal Republicans. The most recent national Quinnipiac survey showed the same basic breakdown in support for him.

Cohn says this makes the road to the nomination a tough one. Iowa has a very large proportion of Republican voters who call themselves "very conservative" compared to most other states so he will have to do more than what he's done there to win the nomination. Cohn says:

To win, Mr. Cruz would have a few options. He could do so well among “very conservative” voters that he could swamp his challengers, especially if multiple candidates with more appeal among self-described moderate voters split the rest of the field. He could broaden his appeal among the party’s center — for the “somewhat conservative” voters who tend to play a decisive role in primary contests. Or he could face off against a candidate who has even more narrow appeal than his own — for example, if John Kasich or Chris Christie won the New Hampshire primary. It could also turn out that “very conservative” voters represent a larger share of the electorate than in the past, given the broader trends.

All of these possibilities remain in play for Mr. Cruz. He has strong favorability ratings across the party, which makes it easier to imagine that he could broaden his appeal. There are a large number of well-funded establishment candidates who could split the moderate vote, not to mention Donald Trump, who has underappreciated appeal to moderate voters. New Hampshire could easily vote for Mr. Trump, or a candidate like Mr. Christie or Mr. Kasich, who might have as little appeal to “very conservative” voters as Mr. Cruz does among moderates.

Ted Cruz seems to understand this. The Very Conservative Voters certainly know he is one of them by now. He announced his campaign at a very slick event at Liberty University. One of his Super PACs is run by the Christian Right's favorite "historian" David Barton. His father is a well-known uber-conservative evangelical preacher and he enthusiastically celebrated the endorsement of Operation Rescue's Troy Newman, a man who believes doctors who perform abortions should be executed. (There's no word on whether Ted Cruz agrees.)

He also checks every Tea Party box on Obamacare, taxes, immigration, Iran, guns, religious liberty, refugees, the 10th Amendment, welfare, IRS, you name it. There is nobody in the Congress more conservative than he. And he, more than anyone, has gone the extra mile, pushing to shut down the government and otherwise fulfill the Tea Party pledge to obstruct everything the president proposes. If Cruz's strategy was to seal the deal with the Very Conservative voters before moving on to phase two, whatever that is, he very systematically went about doing it.

It's unlikely that he anticipated that this primary would feature the Trump phenomenon or that the field would have so many players. But it's entirely possible that he knew the battlelines would form around an establishment and an anti-establishment candidate. He's obviously on the latter track and as Eliana Johnson reported a while back he's been looking beyond Iowa for some time:

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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.

This indicates that Cruz thinks he can win the Very Conservative vote everywhere. And maybe he has a hunch that vote is bigger this year than people realize. Still, with Trump hanging in there, he has to be thinking about other places where he might differentiate himself from the mainstream. And this week he made a couple of moves that indicate he may be looking to pick up poor Rand Paul's followers. With the Paul campaign clearly tanking they are up for grabs and Cruz may be making a move to put them in his basket.

This may seem counterintuitive since Paul's crowd is libertarian and Cruz is a hardcore conservative but there is plenty of overlap to start with. On economics, Cruz and Paul are completely on the same page. They are both anti-tax, anti-regulation, small government zealots. And both are big "Tenthers" which is the modern version of "states' rights". And while one might think that libertarian Republicans would be offended by the social conservatism of someone like Cruz, they generally aren't much interested in any of that.

What animates the Paul faction in ways that are somewhat different than other conservatives is in the areas of civil liberties, privacy and national security where they are much more skeptical of government power. And the ongoing sparring with Marco Rubio has given Cruz the opportunity to make some slight moves in their direction on those issues.

A couple of weeks ago Rubio accused Cruz and Paul of being soft on security by voting for the USA Freedom Act, which ended the NSA's bulk collection. It's a bit of an odd attack since the bill got supermajority support in both chambers of a Republican majority congress but Rubio's tactics are often a bit inscrutable. Nonetheless, Cruz fired back, but not in the way one might expect a right wing conservative to do it:

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“I imagine Sen. Rubio’s PAC is trying to respond to the criticism that is receiving that he was not willing to protect the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of law-abiding citizens, and they are attempting to do so by attacking those of us who were.”

There's no reason to believe that Cruz isn't sincere about this. (The bill didn't really strike a blow for civil liberties, but that's another story.) It's clear his rhetoric about this wasn't designed to appeal to the usual right wing national security instincts which tend toward easy authoritarianism. His comments were aimed at the libertarian wing.

Then this week he gave an interview in which he separated himself again from the national security hawks. This time it wasn't an explicitly Paulite argument but rather an attempt to chart a separate path that they might be able to live with:

The Texan portrayed himself as a third way between the stalwart, non-interventionist views of Senator Rand Paul and pro-interventionist policies in pursuit of spreading democracy and human rights through the Middle East that Rubio espouses. Cruz's belief is that trying to democratize those societies can be counterproductive and that U.S. military power should be focused narrowly on protecting U.S. interests. “If you look at President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and for that matter some of the more aggressive Washington neo-cons, they have consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists,” he said...

At a town hall Monday morning in Coralville, Cruz rejected the “binary” framing of a choice between a foreign policy philosophy where “we want to retreat from the world and be isolationist and leave everyone alone, or we've got to be these crazy neo-con invade-every-country-on-earth and send our kids to die in the Middle East.”

The words "U.S. interests" are always open to interpretation and it's possible Cruz is really just setting himself up as an old-fashioned "realist" in the Poppy Bush mold. But it sounds as though he's once again setting himself in position to appeal to voters whose views on national security fall outside the usual mainstream hawk line. It's a bit of a risk in a time when security fears are running high but if his strategy is to win by sweeping up every Very Conservative and anti-establishment voter in the GOP this may just work.

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Unfortunately for him, there one big roadblock standing in the way of meeting that goal, a loudmouthed billionaire by the name of Donald Trump who is currently dominating among those who hate the GOP insiders. Cruz may be assuming he'll implode, but that's looking like less of a sure thing by the day.

But then, perhaps Cruz has a Plan C in reserve: sew up the evangelical vote, bag the libertarian vote and then finally get the establishment to begrudgingly back his candidacy. If Trump keeps going that may be the only play the establishment has. And wouldn't that be something?


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.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary Marco Rubio Ted Cruz

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