Rand Paul vs. Ted Cruz: Who's winning tea party voters?

While Rand Paul, who is currently leading in polls of GOP voters, backs fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell against a tea party opponent, Ted Cruz openly defies establishment Republican leaders.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, right, are both favorites of the tea party wing of the Republican Party.

Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas are both favorites of the tea party wing of the Republican Party. If both run for president in 2016, as seems likely at the moment, they’d vie for the same conservative voters as a base upon which to build a winning GOP primary coalition.

Given that potential White House candidates are jockeying right now for support from key donors and party figures, it’s not too early to ask this question: Which of these two men is currently winning the most tea party support?

Despite their similar electoral roots, they are very different politicians, of course. And they’re taking two different roads to building name recognition and support in advance of the official White House race.

The libertarian-oriented Senator Paul is emphasizing his vision of a changed, more inclusive Republican Party. And he’s doing so in a pretty blunt way. In an interview with Glenn Beck that aired last week, Paul said the GOP will not win the White House again in his lifetime absent radical change.

“And it has to be a transformation. Not a little tweaking at the edges,” Paul told Mr. Beck in a segment aired on TheBlazeTV.

That means some kind of immigration reform, though Paul hasn’t outlined specifics on this issue beyond opposition to the indefinite jailing of detainees.

“If you want to work and you want a job and you want to be part of America, we’ll find a place for you,” Paul said in an interview with Politico published Tuesday.

Deemphasizing the war on drugs could win support in minority communities, which have a disproportionate share of their population jailed on drug charges, according to Paul. When the Kentucky senator speaks before audiences of young voters, he talks about civil liberties, not taxes.

Senator Cruz is taking a more confrontational approach. Where Paul has endorsed minority leader Mitch McConnell against a tea party primary opponent, angering some conservatives, Cruz won’t support Texas colleague Sen. John Cornyn (R), who also faces a tea party primary challenge.

Cruz clashed openly with establishment GOP leaders last week when he forced them to break his filibuster to allow a final vote on a bill to raise the national debt ceiling. Senator McConnell had hoped the legislation would pass without Republican fingerprints, avoiding a messy fight that might spook financial markets.

Afterwards, the Lone Star lawmaker was unrepentant. Lots of GOP senators misrepresented their intentions to constituents, he said, vowing they’d fight the debt ceiling when they had no intention of doing any such thing.

“It’s like they think the American people are just a bunch of rubes, that we don’t remember what they say,” Cruz told conservative radio talk host Mark Levin late last week.

Such defiance thrills insurgent-minded conservatives. Slate’s Dave Weigel notes today that Cruz is so popular in Texas that a number of Republican candidates now prominently feature photos of themselves with Cruz on their web sites – even though Cruz hasn’t actually endorsed them.

As for Paul, his endorsement of establishment leader McConnell shows he’s bailed on bringing big change to Washington, charges Leon Wolf in the conservative RedState website.

“When it comes to actual accomplishments that have changed the way things are done in Washington or even within the Senate GOP caucus, Paul’s cabinet is pretty empty,” writes Mr. Wolf.

But here’s the kicker: Right now Paul leads Cruz in polls of GOP voters. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys has Paul as the presidential nominee choice of 11.2 percent of Republicans, as opposed to 8.2 percent for Cruz.

Paul appears to have an edge among conservative and tea party voters as well, though the data here is a bit thin. In a January McClatchy/Marist survey, 10 percent of self-described tea party supporters picked Paul as their presidential choice. Nine percent picked Cruz. Paul won eight percent of “strong Republicans” in the McClatchy data; Cruz won six percent, which is within the poll margin of error. 

A poll from Democratic-leaning firm PPP released Jan. 29 has similar results. Among self-described “very conservative” voters, Paul bests Cruz as a nominee choice by 15 to 11 percent. (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beats both men in this category with 20 percent of the “very conservative” respondents.)

PPP finds Paul’s favorability ratings higher than Cruz’s among conservative voters, as well.

It’s early yet, though, and these results might just reflect the fact that Rand Paul’s father Ron Paul ran for president last time around and the family brand remains well-known in GOP circles. It’ll be interesting to see how the Paul/Cruz matchup develops in months ahead.

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