To counter Trump, Ted Cruz aims to lead religious right rebellion

Evangelicals are motivated by recent developments on same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood. Ted Cruz wants to turn that to his advantage.

Rainier Ehrhardt/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas speaks during the Faith & Freedom BBQ in Anderson, S.C., on Monday.

As Republican presidential candidates continue to try to wrap their minds around what is turning out to be the summer of Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is pursuing a more tried-and-true path to the GOP nomination: rally the party’s religious conservatives.

After all, evangelical Christians, who have made up about a quarter of the national electorate since 2004, have long been seen as a crucial bloc of supporters for Republican candidates. 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.

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.

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? 

For one thing, a younger generation of Evangelicals has become more accepting of same-sex marriage and homosexuality and less focused on issues like abortion. Also, Evangelicals, like every other rung of Republican voters, have joined the current Trump juggernaut and cheered his salty anti-politics.

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. But what is clear is that the party is having trouble capturing the presidency in part because it has splintered as it struggles to find its identity going forward.”

Cruz has focused his campaign on religious conservatives from the start. On Tuesday, he held a nationwide conference call with evangelical ministers, promising to begin the process to try to defund Planned Parenthood – an issue that conservatives in Congress have threatened to use to force a government shutdown, if necessary.

“As the son of a pastor, I know you bear a high and holy calling on your lives,” Cruz e-mailed to what his campaign says was 100,000 influential evangelical pastors. “I am urging you to confront this evil in our nation by praying and preaching with an unbridled passion until funding for Planned Parenthood ends, and this barbaric practice is purged from the land.”

Last Friday in Iowa, Cruz spoke with all the verve of an Evangelist at a tent revival meeting. 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]. Well I’m here to tell you, we will stay home no longer.”

Other GOP candidates, such as former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, are also vying for the evangelical vote, as are Dr. Ben Carson and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. So far, however, they all have floundered during the summer of Trump, which has won over a wide range of Republican voters, including women, men, moderates, conservatives, and young and old alike.

Mr. 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. Cruz must do well among both groups to have a shot at the nomination.

“Ted Cruz has been very shrewd to not join in the anti-Trump fray,” e-mails Amy Black, a professor of political science at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. “I'm sure the GOP candidates are frustrated that Trump has captured the lion's share of the media attention. Most have chosen the route of attacking Trump, especially his most outlandish comments.”

“Cruz has not taken the bait,” Professor Black adds, “and I expect this is a deliberate political strategy. In the end, this strategy should serve him well. If current Trump enthusiasts change their minds, Cruz will be waiting to welcome them with open arms.”

The political landscape following the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision could play into Cruz’s strengths, political experts say. And unlike some of the other evangelical favorite sons, Cruz has amassed a huge campaign war chest. It ranks third in total campaign funds raised, including affiliated super political action committees, trailing only the funds raised for former Florida Gov. 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. Throughout this campaign, he has fought increasingly vigorously and publicly to court Evangelicals as well.”

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