Ted Cruz will announce for president today not in his home state of Texas but rather in Lynchburg, Virginia at Liberty University. And there's a very specific reason for that: Cruz badly needs social conservatives on his side if he wants to have any serious chance at being the Republican nominee in 2016.
As I've written before, there are effectively four lanes for candidates to run in during this race: Establishment, Tea Party, Social Conservative and Libertarian. Establishment is, by far, the largest of those lanes and is typically where the nominee comes from. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney filled the establishment lane while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the last man standing in the primary, occupied the social conservative lane. Four years earlier, John McCain was the establishment choice while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was, like Santorum, from the social conservative lane.
Cruz and his advisers are students of that history and know that simply dominating the tea party lane -- as Cruz will -- isn't enough for him to oust someone like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker. To be more than a nuisance candidate -- winning some decent share of the vote in early states but never truly threatening the top tier -- Cruz must find a way to dominate not one but two lanes.
But, which other one lane? The establishment one is a total non-starter since Cruz has premised his entire three-plus years in the Senate on thumbing his nose at said establishment. And, not the libertarian lane because a) Rand Paul has that one locked up and b) Cruz's views on foreign policy are far too hawkish to appeal to that group.
Which leaves the social conservative lane. And explains why Cruz is at Liberty today. It's not simply that Liberty is the largest Christian university in the world; it's that the school, which Falwell founded in 1971, has become the symbolic center of the GOP political-religious universe in recent years. It was at Liberty where Romney delivered his most extensive speech about his Mormon faith -- and faith more generally -- during the 2012 campaign. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and then Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann both spoke at Liberty during that same race. And, it was Liberty where McCain chose to aggressively condemn some religious conservatives as "agents of intolerance" in the heat of his 2000 primary campaign against George W. Bush.
Cruz is engaged in a similar sort of message-sending by beginning his 2016 presidential bid at Liberty. That message? I am one of you; I will put my religious faith at the center of this campaign. In making that play, Cruz is seeking to pre-empt the likes of Huckabee, who built a considerable following among evangelicals during the 2008 campaign and remains a popular figure with that voting bloc, and Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who is trying to occupy both the establishment and social conservative lanes.
To win, Cruz needs to become a two-lane candidate. Today's speech is his first step of that strategy.