Ted Cruz’s campaign strategy: Can he rally an evangelical voting bloc?

26 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

BYRON YORK: Sen. Cuz rising in GOP candidate ranks.

As Republican presidential candidates continue to try to wrap their minds around what is turning out to be the summer of Trump, Sen. The 2016 Texas primary will be the grand prize in a Super Tuesday sweepstakes that should define several presidential campaigns — none more than Texas Sen.ANDERSON – Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz Monday night passed up a chance to fault frontrunner Donald Trump for Trump’s one-time support of abortion rights and government-run healthcare.

If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed? Deace says prospective 2016 GOP campaigns began contacting him well before the 2012 election. (All just assumed that Mitt Romney was going to lose.) The recruitment efforts picked up in 2013 and 2014. “For me, this vetting process has been going on for a couple of years,” he says. “In our world, as activists on the ground, it’s actually kind of late in the game.

His path to victory for the Republican nomination ran through the same anti-immigrant, anti-establishment, anti-knowledge Republicans that are currently flocking to Donald Trump. After all, evangelical Christians, who have made up about a quarter of the national electorate since 2004, have long been seen as a crucial block of supporters for Republican candidates.

He’s more beloved than Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor, or Ted Cruz, an evangelical pastor’s son, or Scott Walker, who said during the recent Republican debate: “It’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed.” No matter. In the crowded field for the GOP nomination, Cruz is closer to the middle of the pack in most polling, and he has very little backing from the party establishment.

Back in March, when Cruz announced his candidacy, I discounted the possibility that his culture-warrior rhetoric would play outside this state, and wrote him off as a colorful source of bulletin-board material for Democrats. In years past, GOP strategists such as Ralph Reed and Karl Rove famously orchestrated successful campaigns that emphasized the culture-war issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, crafting political messages to appeal to Christian conservatives. Deace explains that he was looking for a candidate who can win the support of social conservatives like himself, and also of business-oriented establishment conservatives as well. “We need a candidate who can walk through the front door of the American Family Association and Americans for Prosperity and, while not changing who they are, or pandering, win a standing ovation from both,” says Deace. “I don’t know of another candidate besides Cruz that we can say that about.” Other campaigns would disagree, of course, but the endorsement comes on top of a good run by Cruz lately. On the strategic/tactical front, he has shrewdly aligned himself with surprise front-runner Donald Trump, meaning that Cruz is now positioned as an obvious Option B in case the brash real-estate mogul needs to undergo treatment to cope with his bizarre obsession with Megyn Kelly. And in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage a constitutional right, as well as conservative furor over Planned Parenthood, Senator Cruz has begun an all-out effort to reprise the culture-wars strategy by winning the hearts of Evangelicals and religious conservatives, many of whom are still reeling from America’s swift and momentous cultural shift.

The Texas senator really connected with conservatives during the earliest days of his campaign; for a while in April, Cruz was in third place in the GOP race, according to the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. Cruz has also established himself as a fundraising powerhouse, meaning that he should be able to devote major resources to most of the 12 primaries and caucuses that will be at stake on Super Tuesday, seven of which are located in the South (eight, if you count Oklahoma), Cruz’s political and cultural wheelhouse. But in a political season defined by Donald Trump’s assault on illegal immigration and free-for-all celebrity style, is the religious right as cohesive and powerful as it once seemed to be? Usually the disconnect involves stern moralizing, especially on matters sexual, by showily devout public figures who are then exposed as adulterers or (gasp!) closet homosexuals. All that was obvious at last Friday’s “Rally for Religious Liberty” in De Moines, Iowa, where Cruz transfixed 2,5000 social conservatives with a performance that was equal parts testifying preacher and slick courtroom attorney.

Cruz recounted his work, as Texas solicitor general, on a Supreme Court case in which he defended the presence of a Ten Commandments monument on public property. Cruz was the only one of the three candidates who wandered from the safety of the VIP reception area to take questions from reporters and mingle with attendees on the convention center floor. Scott Walker can’t seem to give a straight answer to tough immigration questions and he disappeared at the first debate, taking a beating for it in the polls.

But if the real estate mogul is riding a wave of general anti-politician animus, Cruz could be the candidate best poised to take advantage should the Trump phenomenon start to fizzle, political experts say. “It is a really interesting and potentially a smart political strategy [for Cruz], in part, because this coalition remains viable,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “But it is also important to note how much the GOP has changed since this coalition was formed,” she continues. “Following Obama’s election in 2008, many people said the Republican Party as we knew it had disintegrated – though the 2010 and 2014 midterms suggest this is a bit overblown. John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” has been making brilliant satirical fun of this by promoting his new tax-exempt church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. Indeed, top officials on the Texan’s team have already begun “quietly reaching out to Rand Paul’s early supporters and endorsers,” making their case in one-on-one meetings. The interesting thing about that is that Cruz spoke for less time, and uttered fewer words, than any of the other candidates except Rand Paul. “Man of few words” is not a phrase normally associated with Ted Cruz.

Marco Rubio’s in a different position from Bush and Walker in that he hasn’t really disappointed — he excelled at the debate and his favorable ratings remain off the charts — but he seems to be everyone’s second choice. Last Sunday he apologized to viewers that his wife, Wanda Jo, “cannot be with us this evening.” What’s different and fascinating about the Trump worship is that he doesn’t even try that hard for a righteous facade — for Potemkin piety.

We are one justice away from the Supreme Court saying, ‘Every image of God shall be torn down.’” It was an absurd assertion, but it conveyed a clear message: The culture wars are on in this country, and Christians need Cruz to be their wartime president. And I don’t need to bother explaining why the loss of Christian privilege doesn’t constitute Christian “persecution.” And I don’t need to bother explaining why “liberal fascism” is as much of an oxymoron as “atheist Taliban.” Cruz’s rhetoric here isn’t as interesting as his strategy. Maybe he starts to move as Jeb fans accept that the dream of Bush 3.0 isn’t happening and Walker’s fans accept that the man who laid waste to the left in Wisconsin won’t be the same wrecking ball as president, but it seems like voters might be stuck seeing Rubio as a guy who’ll be perfect four or eight years from now.

Sure, he speaks of enthusiastic churchgoing, and he’s careful to curse Planned Parenthood and to insist that matrimony be reserved for heterosexuals as demonstrably inept at it as he is. Cruz also said Trump’s attendance in the first televised debate among GOP presidential candidates boosted viewership, which led to more Americans hearing Cruz, which led to a rise in Cruz’s poll numbers.

He railed against looming threats to religious liberty, quoted Scripture, thundered against the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision, and brought onstage Richard and Betty Odgaard, an Iowa couple who refused to host a same-sex wedding at their public business, which they later shuttered after they were sued by the couple. “You wonder why we have a federal government that comes after our free-speech rights, that comes after our religious liberty, that comes after life, that comes after marriage, that comes after our values?” Cruz told an audience of about 2,500 supporters in Des Moines. “It is because 54 million evangelical Christians stayed home [in the 2012 elections]. Ted Cruz is kicking his assault on Planned Parenthood into high gear this week with the launch of an ambitious 50-state campaign to end taxpayer support for the women’s health organization.

Cruz did a 21-stop post-debate bus tour in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma, and saw growing audiences in each. “He was drawing crowds of up to 2,500,” says another aide. “We saw our RSVPs at every event go up by no less than 50 percent after the debate.” But Cruz aides believe his recent uptick is about more than the debate. Cruz’s central argument — that devout Christians in the United States are being persecuted by secular progressives — merely echoes what we’ve heard in recent years from the likes of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. But Cruz also pointed to a “time as this campaign goes forward for additional policy differences and differentiation, but my focus right now is laying out my positive record and frankly the difference between campaign conservatives who talk a good game on the trail and a consistent conservative who is the same yesterday and today and tomorrow.”

So the three “electable” guys in the race seem unelectable while Trump’s candidacy, which started off looking like a stunt, turns increasingly serious. At the recent RedState Gathering of conservatives in Atlanta, Cruz won a huge ovation when he was asked what it means to lead from behind. “Well, sure,” Cruz replied. “Republican congressional leadership does it every day.” All the things that have made many Republicans in Washington dislike Cruz just make a certain type of GOP voter like him even more.

Trump is telling the Republican base that their white privilege is under attack from the raping, murdering Mexicans and the manipulative Chinese; Cruz is telling the Republican base that their Christian privilege is under attack from the pillaging, persecuting secularists. Wrath is covered by his anti-immigrant, anti-“losers” rants, and if we interpret gluttony to include big buildings and not just Big Macs, he’s a glutton through and through. In much the way that primary voters admire Scott Walker for standing up and taking on the unions, they admire Cruz for standing up and taking on Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. “He should make a commercial that is a montage of people hating him — McConnell, Boehner, the surrender caucus,” says Deace. “He would close with, ‘The same people you hate, hate me.

Cruz overstated the case, constantly describing the venue as the Odgaard’s “church,” when in fact it was a former church that they converted into an art gallery, bistro and flower shop. In a recent Fox News poll — the one in which Cruz jumped up to third place after the debate, ahead of Jeb Bush — Cruz did better with voters under 45 years of age than any Republican candidate except Donald Trump.

It’s a slick chess move, taking a group — the LGBT community — that has long been subjected to persecution, ridicule and physical attack, and depicting its members as the intolerant bullies of our society. Cruz should know that the Christian faith was similarly used at one time by bigots who opposed interracial marriage and racial integration, but he is either unwilling or unable to see the correlation. But Mike Huckabee has no intention of being president; he has every intention of selling “Power of Prayer” cancer treatments to Christian Zionists. But all was forgiven: His host, Jerry Falwell, told audience members that Trump could be credited for “single-handedly” forcing President Obama to release his birth certificate.

The Odgaard family, Cruz insists, are “victims” of “government persecution” – these innocent owners of a church, the senator insists, were punished by the state because of their faith. Trump continues to top the polls even among Evangelicals nationwide by wide margins – including 32 percent in the early primary state of New Hampshire, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released on Tuesday, and 44 percent of tea party voters. But given Trump’s absolute dominance of the Republican primary on Cruz’s other signature issues, particularly immigration, this is probably the best way Cruz can play the hand he’s been dealt.

Then again, while Trump was originally thought to be particularly weak in his religious knees, he has since decided that the Bible is the most luxurious, classiest book ever written. And as the staunchest conservative in the top tier, he’s a natural draw for righties who dislike Trump because they believe (correctly) that he’s a phony conservative.

I’m grasping at straws, because there’s no sense in the fact that many of the people who most frequently espouse the Christian spirit then proceed to vilify immigrants, demonize minorities and line up behind a candidate who’s a one-man master class in such misanthropy. More importantly, I think the success of Trump’s bareknuckle populist campaign has moved the Overton window of who can plausibly be nominated towards insurgency, which benefits Cruz.

From Trump’s Twitter account gushes an endless stream of un-Christian rudeness, and he was at it again on Monday night, retweeting someone else’s denigration of Kelly as a “bimbo.” Shouldn’t he be turning the other cheek? It ranks third in total campaign funds raised, including affiliated super political action committees, trailing only the funds raised for former Florida Gov. Courting the evangelical vote, Cruz used his own Twitter account last week to say that his “thoughts and prayers are with President Jimmy Carter,” whose struggle with cancer was riveting the nation.

Jeb Bush (R) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D). “From Cruz’s perspective then, if he is able to join the tea party and Evangelicals together in a party this splintered, it may help him get enough support to make a viable run,” says Professor Zaino. “This also makes sense because it fits within Cruz’s history – he won the Senate race in Texas based on tea party support – and he continues to have that. At the start of the campaign, before Trump got in, it seemed like Scott Walker was best positioned to please both the establishment and the grassroots, but with populists now flexing their muscle via Trumpmania, a compromise between the two wings may require a pol who’s more ostentatiously populist than Walker is.

Simply put, the donors and party brokers who want Jeb might now conclude that nominating the dynast Bush amid this populist wave would break the party — and that their back-up choice, Walker, might himself not have the strength among the grassroots anymore to fully heal the rift. If you think, as I’ve argued here, that Trumpmania is more of a populist and anti-illegal-immigration phenomenon than it is an ideological phenomenon, then yeah, Cruz is a natural beneficiary. (Ben Carson would be too.) Lots of Trump voters aren’t very conservative in their politics, though; check the crosstabs of polls taken over the last two months and you’ll find that he does at least as well with self-described moderates as he does with conservatives.

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