Sen. Ted Cruz is gearing up for the sleepy, overshadowed Nevada caucuses with a campaign tour and a new TV spot — one that demonstrates how he's trying to own the "liberty lane" of the primaries now that Sen. Rand Paul is out of the Republican presidential race.
In "Nevada Land," Cruz (R-Tex.) pledges to give "full control" of Nevada land to the state, putting him in league with hard-line conservatives and libertarians from the grass roots to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
"Eighty-five percent of Nevada is owned and regulated by the federal government," Cruz says in the ad. "And Donald Trump wants to keep big government in charge. That's ridiculous."
The Trump mention is sourced to a January interview that the Republican front-runner gave to Field & Stream. Accompanied by son Donald Jr., who has become a major surrogate on gun rights, Trump said he disagreed with the movement to transfer land rights from the federal government to the states.
"I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do," Trump said. "I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land."
That was a now-standard Trumpian simplification of an incredibly thorny debate. Pulling back land rights from Washington has been a cause for Western Republicans for a generation, epitomized by the high-profile crusades of the Bundy family to claim land rights over territory claimed by the feds. Cruz and Paul (R-Ky.) suggested that Cliven Bundy's 2014 standoff with federal agents came from a legitimate anger at a legitimately flawed policy; both said less about the issue after Bundy held a disastrous news conference that got into his feelings about "the negro" and his place in America.
But that gaffe was a distraction for a movement that was gaining ground. Cruz's endorsers in Nevada include Republican state Rep. Michele Fiore, an ally of the Bundys who became a mediator when Ammon Bundy led a temporary takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge. And the movement to give lands back to the states is supported by some of the most powerful and deep-pocketed libertarian donors in America.
It's unclear whether that can boost Cruz in Nevada. A CNN-ORC poll this week found Trump 28 points ahead of Cruz in that state. Local Republicans say that the Texan and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are much better organized than Trump in the state, with local offices and a canvassing team trying to turn out voters for the easily forgotten caucuses. A Cruz surprise might depend on the sort of rural libertarian voters who gave GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul strong finishes in 2008 and 2012.