It’s a crowded field out there for the Republican presidential primary. Whether firebrand Ted Cruz, the first out of the gate with his official announcement Monday, can break from the pack is now the question.
If you’re talking about fellow anti-establishment, Christian right-wing conservatives, Senator Cruz has strong potential to get ahead. But if you include candidates with broader appeal, history indicates he won’t be the GOP nominee.
But even as Cruz trails in polls, he could still have influence on the race. In that regard, the Texas tea party senator will be “a considerable factor,” says Stuart Rothenberg, founding editor of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.
“I wouldn’t dismiss him, brush him off, or underestimate him,” Mr. Rothenberg says.
Cruz has substantial appeal with right-wing Christians who are angry and frustrated with the establishment GOP’s tendency to compromise, Rothenberg says. “You’re not talking about 5 percent of the party; you’re probably talking about 40 percent.”
A recent Pew report finds that consistently conservative Republicans have gained in strength since 2004.
Cruz graduated from the elite schools of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, but he has proved his anti-establishment bona fides. In 2013, his first year as a US senator, he led the way to a partial government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act.
At the end of last year, he wanted to use the entire federal budget – and not just the Department of Homeland Security – as leverage against what he calls the president’s “executive amnesty” on immigration. And he’s likened the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran to the Munich appeasement of Hitler in 1938.
According to Rothenberg, similar candidates to watch are Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Governor Jindal, who can be long-winded, ranks even lower than Cruz in the RealClearPolitics average of polls in the first-in-the-nation battleground of Iowa – 2 percent compared with Cruz’s 4.3 percent.
Mr. Huckabee would be a more formidable competitor, having won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and receiving the second highest GOP delegate count that year. A former minister, he’s polling at 12 percent in the RCP average in Iowa, where evangelical conservatives play a major role.
Widen the circle to include Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is expected to announce his candidacy April 7, and things get tougher. Both lawmakers are tea party darlings, but Senator Paul adds a libertarian streak and his own charisma.
“The two would be battling for many of the same votes,” says Amy Black, a professor of political science at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., in an e-mail.
Finally, throw in candidates with broader appeal – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – and things get even tougher. Not since Barry Goldwater in 1964 has a stridently conservative Republican won the party’s presidential nomination – and he went down to a crashing defeat against Lyndon B. Johnson.
The lesson here is that candidates with the broadest appeal actually win, although Cruz argues that Republicans like Mitt Romney and John McCain lost because they were too mainstream, not conservative enough.
“History tells us that somebody that the party leadership likes will get the nomination,” says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville. “Certainly the party leadership will not want Ted Cruz to get the nomination.”
Indeed, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky promised “no more shutdowns” when Republicans took control of the Senate this year. Besides, he’s backing Senator Rand Paul, his fellow Kentuckian.
But Cruz’s presence will certainly be felt. He is a forceful orator and will probably influence the debates – and general debate. He may attract three or four mega-wealthy individuals who want to put millions into his campaign, forcing others to spend more. Or he may successfully build a grass-roots army of small donors.
What party officials want is to get to a nominee as quickly as possible, to avoid intraparty fighting. Cruz or other formidable candidates could delay that.
On the other hand, Professor Black suggests that the Texan's stark, take-no-prisoners ideological stance actually “makes it easier for a more moderate candidate (or candidates) to enter the race.” Such a stance offers moderates “more political space to reach out to centrist and center-right Republicans.”