The Texas senator may look like an also-ran, but he’s a legit contender.
By Eliana Johnson at National Review
Where’s Ted Cruz? The outspoken Texas senator has been unusually quiet in recent weeks. But in GOP circles, there’s soft but growing chatter that he is likely to be one of the last men standing in one of the most chaotic and unpredictable presidential races in recent memory.
You wouldn’t know it from his poll numbers. Cruz is running at about 6 percent nationally and in key states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s well behind outsiders Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson, and those numbers accord with the attitude that many influential Republicans have taken toward him since his arrival in Washington three years ago: There’s no way he can win the nomination. He’s too conservative and doctrinaire, and his abrasiveness doesn’t help the cause. Given his poll numbers and his solid but unremarkable debate performances, the press has mostly ignored him. The result is that the Texas senator may be the most undercovered serious candidate in the race – and the most underestimated. But he shouldn’t be dismissed. This is the man, after all, who, according to one of his allies, began meeting with Iowa activists to plot his path to victory in the state in August of 2013, just nine months after he was elected to the Senate. Is it possible that he’ll sneak up on the Republican establishment again, just as he did in his 2012 Senate race?
Within Republican circles, attitudes about his viability have begun to change. Even strategists associated with some of Cruz’s rivals acknowledge that, in a historically crowded field, he may be one of the last men standing. “He’s got a long way to go, but unlike some of these guys, he has a coherent strategy, he has a lot of money, he has a pretty consistent message, and he’s not making mistakes,” says a top Republican strategist allied with Florida senator Marco Rubio. “He’s running a good campaign.”
Cruz has a path through the early states; both his campaign and his super PAC are flush with cash; and he’s a skilled politician who doesn’t slip up much on the campaign trail or in debates. But unlike Cruz himself, his strategy is not head-turning but simple, steady, even creeping. “He’s not readily considered a first-tier candidate, but if you look at the critical ways to evaluate whether a candidate is strong or not, he should be a first-tier candidate,” says GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. By all accounts, Cruz is positioned to succeed in Iowa, which has been friendly to conservative candidates in years past. The Real Clear Politics polling average has him tied for third place with Carly Fiorina, and he has a solid ground game in place. “Our trajectory has been slow and steady upward,” says Bryan English, Cruz’s political director in the state. “I’ve just been kind of curious, okay, when are people going to start paying attention to what we’re doing and that we’re positioned to do very well in Iowa.”
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,” 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. Mackowiak says there’s a ‘very real possibility’ that Cruz will be the overall delegate leader on March 2.
It’s not uncommon for “insurgent” candidates to take a number of early states, but they then typically have to rapidly raise the cash and build the big infrastructure needed to turn out voters across the country. Rick Santorum’s campaign was starved for money until he won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, after which it had trouble turning a sudden influx of cash into a viable campaign organization overnight. In 2008, in the months before the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee had no national finance chairman or speechwriters, and he didn’t have enough money to commission any internal polls. Cruz is a different sort of insurgent, who has from the first days of the 2016 primary made it clear that he won’t be outpaced financially. Small-dollar donors from an enormous e-mail list culled during the fight over the 2013 government shutdown have made him the leader in hard-dollar donations, and a cadre of eccentric billionaires looking to shake up Republican presidential politics have put over $37 million into his super PACs. He has used that money to build a national organization: As he told a gathering of donors in August assembled at the behest of Charles and David Koch, “If you are going to run a national campaign, you’ve got to be able to compete nationally.”
A year ago, most political onlookers assumed that Cruz and his tea-party colleague Rand Paul would vie for the insurgent crown. A top Republican who’s not aligned with either campaign told me at the time that Cruz and Paul would battle to the death. They were, he said, like “like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort: One cannot exist while the other lives.” As it turns out, it hasn’t been much of a contest. Cruz has proved to be an ambitious and serious campaigner, devoted to doing the hard and unglamorous work required of presidential candidates, while Paul has not, and other candidates have risen to compete with Cruz in the anti-establishment bracket. Cruz has proved to be an ambitious and serious campaigner, devoted to doing the hard and unglamorous work required of presidential candidates. The natural question is why a candidate with strong fundamentals is mired between 5 and 8 percent in the polls. There is, of course, the unexpected candidacy of Donald Trump, who has eclipsed Cruz not only in the polls but also in the national spotlight. Cruz has chosen uncharacteristically to lie low, and flying under the radar has meant that he hasn’t sustained many attacks from his rivals. Meanwhile, though many of his challengers rolled their eyes when he went out of his way to shower praise on Donald Trump, whose withering insults have done damage to stronger candidates, Cruz has managed to stay out of his path of destruction as well. Four months from the Iowa caucuses, he remains virtually untouched by his rivals. And, though he hasn’t had a real breakout moment, his supporters say the polls, particularly in Iowa, simply don’t predict what’s going to happen when caucusgoers and voters start getting more serious. Jeff King, the son of Iowa congressman Steve King, who’s working for one of Cruz’s cluster of four super PACs, says that national polls rarely reflect the reality on the ground in Iowa. “You can almost throw ’em out,” he says.
Polls in Iowa may not be that much better. Of the six polls taken closest to the 2012 caucuses, none showed Rick Santorum running ahead of Mitt Romney; one showed Ron Paul winning. In 2008, Mitt Romney led Mike Huckabee until about a month before the caucuses. “I would caution everybody to be very, very, very leery of drawing any conclusions from Iowa polling,” says Deace. Some are starting to take note of his strength. In a blog post titled “Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio: This Is Where We Are Headed,” the right-wing commentator Erick Erickson, the soon-to-be-former proprietor of the RedState blog, wrote last month that if Republican primary voters were to cast their ballots now, “We’d find the last men standing would be Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio,” and that Cruz would have the advantage. “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.”
Eliana Johnson is Washington bureau chief of National Review. She is also the daughter of Scott Johnson at Power Line.
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