Ted Cruz on Monday became the first official, major candidate in the 2016 race, opting against the “exploratory committee” model that Jeb Bush and others are using and jumping right in, feet first. Anyone who has watched the Texan operate during his first term as a U.S. senator cannot be surprised.
The conventional wisdom about Cruz — and I tend to buy it — is that he doesn’t have a legitimate shot at winning the nomination. If you look at my post from last week about the candidates and their perception among GOP primary voters, Cruz starts with a fairly high number of Republicans who say they couldn’t see themselves voting for him, and hardly more who say they could. Four in five GOP primary voters have an opinion about him, and they’re split between the positive and the negative. If that opinion poll reflects reality, it leaves Cruz with an extremely difficult path to the nomination.
That said, Ben Domenech at The Federalist finds three reasons that Cruz skeptics may be wrong. Here are excerpts of each of his points and my thoughts about them:
“First: Ted Cruz matches up with the activist base better than any other significant candidate in a long time. I don’t think people outside of that base really understand how powerful Cruz’s appeal is to the populist energized conservative voter, which is of course just a faction of the right, but is a sizable faction. Cruz’s critics need to hope that he is limited to this faction, and incapable of appealing outside of it. But that may not prove to be the case, particularly if Cruz is able to cut into the appeal of, say, Walker for pro-business types, Huckabee for social conservatives, Paul for libertarianish Republicans and the like.”
Domenech goes on to discuss Cruz’s love of the fight, as illustrated by his rare willingness, among candidates, to tell Iowa Republicans he’s against the ethanol mandate. To the degree voters are looking for a fighter, I agree they can hardly do better than Cruz. The question is whether they see him as having more than a puncher’s chance in a general election, where “the taste of blood in (one’s) mouth” won’t be as much of an attractive quality.
“Second: To the degree that this is a nomination battle about who has done the most to fight the Obama administration about two key issues — amnesty and Obamacare — Ted Cruz can claim that mantle and beat his opponents over the head with their stances on these topics. We underestimate how going soft on both of these issues is going to play in the GOP primary this cycle, particularly in the early going.”
Here again, there’s little question Cruz has been the brashest fighter on these and other topics. But Cruz will be going up against six current or former governors (Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie) who will counter his willingness to fight with his comparative lack of results. I would be surprised if they don’t try to paint him as a Republican version of Barack Obama circa 2007-08: a first-term senator with a commensurately thin legislative record who will try to win on rhetoric and figure out how to govern later. Absent a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for much of his first two years, Obama’s record as president would be limited to the killing of Osama bin Laden and a series of executive orders. Cruz wouldn’t have that kind of majority to work with, if he had one at all, and he can’t very well go from critic of Obama’s executive orders to author of his own. With more executive experience in the GOP field than we’ve seen in a number of cycles, proving his governing bona fides will be a tall task for Cruz.
“And third: While the ‘purest’ conservative candidate rarely wins, that assumes a divided right. Cruz may end up running in a field where the other candidates are scrabbling over support from the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street, and establishment dollars while he could corner the populist talk radio base.”
This is maybe the most intriguing point, because Domenech is absolutely right here: Typically, conservatives divide themselves over the cadre of candidates aiming to be purer than one another, leaving a more moderate candidate like Mitt Romney or John McCain to capture the middle (and certain factions: chamber types in Romney’s case, defense hawks in McCain’s) and the nomination. But there’s a chance the shoe is on the other foot this time around. I’m not sure it will play out that way — and Domenech lists candidates who could challenge Cruz for support on the right flank, one reason you should read his whole piece — but if it did, Cruz could be more successful than a lot of us expect.