If he’s ever going to break out of the GOP pack, the showdown over Planned Parenthood and the budget will be what does it.
If Ted Cruz is ever going to break through in the Republican presidential primary, the time is now.
Cruz has been the workmanlike conservative of the GOP field: a strong fundraiser but no Jeb Bush, well-liked by the activist right yet unable, so far, to generate the kind of breakout moments that have vaulted his anti-establishment rivals out of the single-digit doldrums.
But Cruz’s supporters see the showdown in Congress over Planned Parenthood and the budget — which kicks into high gear this week and could stretch into the winter, on the cusp of voting in early states — as a critical opening for the first-term lawmaker. With the spotlight focused on Congress, they say, it will allow Cruz to make a sustained case to tea party and evangelical voters that he’s the one candidate doing battle in the trenches for their causes, just as many of them are picking a horse in the race. The goal, he and allies stop just short of saying, is to expose his chief competitors for the outsider mantle as pretenders by comparison.
“Every election we see campaign conservatives who talk a good game on the campaign trail, and yet haven’t walked the walk,” Cruz told POLITICO in an interview last week. “The clearest distinction is that, of the Republican candidates running, I am the only consistent conservative who on issue after issue after issue has been the same yesterday, today, tomorrow.”
“The fight is in Washington,” said Steve Deace, an influential conservative Iowa radio host who has endorsed Cruz. “You can be great in debates, you can be great on Fox News … but really, ultimately, are you great where the battle is the hottest?”
Other Republicans, however, warn that the fiscal fights this fall could define Cruz — whose time in Congress is best known for the two-week government shutdown he helped instigate in 2013, and the routine ire he draws from his Senate colleagues — as too doctrinaire and too much of a pariah within his own party to win a general election. Flirting with a second government shutdown in as many years is a risky play for a candidate with any hope of being more than just a favorite of the far right.
“For the short term, it sets him apart, but in the long term, it could come back on him,” said Kim Reem, head of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, who is not endorsing a candidate. “The people more to the middle that he’d need to win the presidency may very well say, ‘Well, I’m not likely to support you that way because I don’t like how you handled [this].’”
Still, with strong grass-roots fundraising, a steady stream of media coverage and a slash-and-burn legislative playbook, there’s perhaps no one better positioned than Cruz to gain from any slip by Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina, the party’s top-tier candidates of the moment who have surged largely on the backs of voters Cruz once counted as his loyalists.
Cruz and House conservatives are expected to lose the first round of the Planned Parenthood budget battle this week; Speaker John Boehner’s resignation Friday likely cleared the way for passage of a two-month bill that would keep money flowing to the family planning group and the rest of government.
But threat of another government shutdown over the issue and spending levels will return instantly, and soon Congress will need to vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling or risk default. All of which guarantees Cruz will be front and center, doing everything he can to dash Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hopes of avoiding crisis-driven legislating.
It’s a political blueprint that many conservatives are eager to see play out.
“The truth is a lot of people around the country share [Cruz’s] view. I hear it a lot,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a popular figure on the right who has advised Trump but not endorsed a presidential candidate. “I am concerned that good, patriotic Republicans are uneasy and actually some [are] losing confidence with the Republican majority in the Congress.”
On the political side, meanwhile, Cruz is building up a campaign infrastructure that includes 500 surrogates in battleground states and is recruiting pastors to represent him in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. His campaign has pulled in one of the biggest fundraising hauls of the field — more than $50 million when his super PACs’ totals are included — that the campaign is banking on to get Cruz through a long, delegate-by-delegate fight that will leave him, they hope, as the last conservative candidate standing.
Cruz said he’d be confronting Republican leaders over Planned Parenthood even if he weren’t running for president. He pointed out that he battled the group as Texas solicitor general years before he contemplated a presidential campaign.
“I would be doing exactly the same thing whether or not I was running for president. And I would note that my approach was the same, on the day I arrived in the Senate, long before any campaign was in the offing,” Cruz said.
Those around his campaign are more straightforward about the political calculus.
“It clearly helps him in the evangelical lane. The liberty movement is also a very pro-life movement, and by and large, although not always, it’s a focus of the tea party. So it has broad spectrum support among conservatives,” said an adviser, speaking of the dual legislative-political strategy.
A snapshot of Cruz’s campaign shows that he has an opportunity to make headway over the next three months, especially since Congress is setting up another shutdown fight in December that will likely be waged over whether to raise spending. With that platform, plus his strong fundraising and steady poll support in the middle of the GOP pack, a loss by any comparatively conservative candidate is likely to be Cruz’s gain.
In the interview, Cruz said it took 100 hours to raise $1 million after this first GOP debate. In the second, in which his ideas of defunding Planned Parenthood morphed into a debate topic to the delight of the Texas senator, Cruz raised the same amount in half the time.
All evidence, Cruz says, that Washington might not be listening to him, but the electorate is.
“The reason our campaign is getting so much momentum and energy and enthusiasm,” Cruz said, “is people are tired of politicians who say one thing and do another.”
Still, Cruz’s intransigence has relegated him to a voice of protest in the Senate, with virtually no sway over other Republicans and little power beyond his ability to filibuster and wage rhetorical warfare.
Though his message resonates with a disillusioned conservative base, whose activists feel that they see few differences between a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic one, Cruz’s strategy raises the question: Can a senator rise to the GOP nomination after losing every modicum of influence over the Senate?
Party elders hope not. They are already looking for a candidate with broad appeal, precisely the mistake Cruz says Republicans made in losing efforts against Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“To win the White House you have to be able to carry purple states,” McConnell said when asked about the race to the right in the GOP. “I hope for a nominee that can appeal to an electorate that is not locked into either side.”
But the first order of business for Cruz is prevailing over Trump, Carson, Fiorina and others in the competition for tea party and socially conservative voters. Until he does that, questions about whether his appeal is too narrow are moot.
“We’re having a battle right now on Planned Parenthood. Do you see any of the other men and women who were on that [debate] stage engaged in this battle?” Cruz added with a sigh. “Not a one of them.”