While there is not yet a front-runner in the early race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is quickly becoming the favored contender of social conservatives, riding a recent wave of fiery speeches and standing ovations at right-wing conferences.
Cruz’s core supporters on the right are the activists and high-powered interest groups determined to keep faith-infused positions at the center of the Republican Party, regardless of a push by some in the GOP to seek distance from socially conservative stands on marriage and abortion.
Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist who has worked on three Republican presidential campaigns, said that what is fueling Cruz’s rise is a fierce determination by social conservatives not to be dictated to in 2016 — as he believes they were in the past two elections, told to rally around more centrist nominees.
“Many social conservatives feel their issues have been kicked to the side, and they are frustrated. Someone like Cruz taking the nomination in 2016 would give them a voice again,” he said. “It’s still early, and there are many potential candidates that could appeal to this base, but there is no question Senator Cruz has some early momentum with them. He hits all of the main themes the conservative base want to hear.”
Conservatives see an opening in the disarray in the GOP establishment, which has yet to settle on its preferred candidate amid former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s indecision about running and the troubles of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has seen his administration embroiled by a scandal over last year’s politically motivated closure of traffic lanes near the George Washington Bridge.
There is a brewing sense on the right that if a well-financed establishment Republican isn’t surging ahead, conservative Republicans could capture the nomination, with a consensus candidate eventually toppling whoever emerges weakened as the favorite of GOP financiers and party officials.
Seeking a charismatic, youthful and unrepentant champion who also holds traditional GOP views on foreign and economic policy, many leading figures in the conservative movement have begun to coalesce around Cruz, 43, as their best shot at elevating a fellow hard-liner.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, has known Cruz since they worked together on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. He believes Cruz would do “extremely well” with social conservatives.
“He is a devout person of faith and an outstanding speaker,” Reed said. “Cruz knows the language and understands these people.”
At this past weekend’s Values Voter Summit, a gathering of politically active evangelical Christians and tea party conservatives in Washington, Cruz won huge cheers for a rollicking speech and came in first in the summit’s straw poll for the second year running, albeit with a significantly reduced margin. This year, 25 percent chose him as their favorite for the 2016 nomination, followed by Ben Carson — a pediatric neurosurgeon who is another grass-roots favorite — at 20 percent.
Longtime Republican consultant Ed Rollins said that even as he watches Cruz ascend, others hardly on the party’s map could become challengers for Cruz’s base, particularly former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
“Mike has always thought 2016 would be his cycle,” said Rollins, who advised Huckabee’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. “I think he’s getting ready to go. Every sign out there is that he’s thinking hard about it.”
Huckabee was also at the Values Voter Summit, shaking hands in the hallways with college Republicans and urging evangelicals to get back into the arena in force ahead of 2016.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a much-discussed potential 2016 candidate who came in first in the 2014 Conservative Political Action Committee straw poll — another key barometer of social conservative sentiment — also spoke at the summit, albeit with a different approach. Paul’s low-key speech hit on a number of themes, from his antiabortion views to religious liberty. Both senators quoted from the Bible — Paul from Corinthians and Cruz from Psalms.
Paul, who has labored this year to expand the GOP’s reach in minority communities and win over younger voters, is positioning himself to be a viable candidate for the Christian right but one not entirely reliant on its support as he builds a presidential campaign.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a former talk-radio host who has called himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” is keen to join the mix, too. “My message is about how I think the wellspring of national renewal is what is happening in the states,” Pence said in an interview earlier this year.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a socially conservative iconoclast who tested Romney during the 2012 primary and won 11 primary contests, is also considering another bid. He said over the weekend that he is unhappy with the lack of attention he has received since his last campaign folded but is confident he could compete.
Disappointment over what is seen as the GOP’s drift toward a watered-down platform on traditional values was rampant at this year’s summit. Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, whose political arm served as the main sponsor for the event, said at a news conference that the failure of Mitt Romney to win in 2012 demonstrates why social conservatives will be looking for a more authentic voice in 2016.
“I was convinced that he was pro-life, pro-family and pro-marriage,” Perkins said. “However, his record was something that followed him. Positions that he took earlier in his career — people were not convinced.”
For 2016, those on the right are looking for someone who is unquestionably one of their own. But Republican pollster Frank Luntz said both parties make the mistake of “assuming that the social agenda is just about abortion or marriage.”
“There is a values-oriented message that appeals way beyond traditional social conservatives,” he said. “For example, . . . the rights of parents to control what their children are taught in school may not be seen as a traditional social issue, but to a majority of voters and just about every Republican, it really matters. Similarly, the GOP primary candidates willing to talk about and even define right and wrong will do well in Republican primaries.”
Some of the more moderate 2016 candidates are not on the radar of social conservatives. Jeb Bush was not asked to speak at this year’s Values Voter Summit, despite of his long record of social conservatism.
“Jeb is a very nice guy, but he has a challenge among real conservatives for aggressively pushing for Common Core,” Perkins said, referring to the national education standards opposed by many tea party conservatives. “That’s a huge problem.”
According to a McClatchy-Marist poll in August, there is no candidate who stands out. In that poll, Cruz was chosen by 10 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents for the 2016 nomination, behind Bush and Christie at 13 percent each. For Republicans who support the tea party, Cruz comes in first with 15 percent.
Meanwhile, Cruz has been a frequent visitor to New Hampshire and Iowa, both home to early contests in the 2016 race. But on Monday, the senator wrote on Facebook that “no decision has been made” regarding a 2016 run.