CONCORD, N.H. — Sen. Ted Cruz stood outside the New Hampshire state capitol Thursday morning, moments after filing papers to qualify for next year’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Coatless against a cold drizzle, he delivered a fiery call to arms to the enthusiastic supporters gathered around him and beyond.
“We’re seeing conservatives in New Hampshire and nationally unite,” he said. “We’re seeing the liberty movement coming together. . . . Let me tell you, what is happening on these steps in New Hampshire scares the living daylights out of Washington.”
It was an exhortation by a politician on the rise in the competition for the Republican nomination. Two outsiders with no political experience, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, continue to lead the GOP field. But in the year of the outsider, the freshman senator from Texas who has made his mark defying the political elites believes that, ultimately, he can be the beneficiary of the virulent anti-Washington mood that has shaped this pre-election year.
And as unlikely as his path might have seemed a few months ago, Cruz’s rise in the polls and his formidable war chest represent an additional threat to the establishment that is not going unnoticed.
During a lengthy interview as he returned to his hotel after a long day of campaigning, Cruz offered a detailed explanation of what he views as his path forward — and why he thinks he’ll win. But it is a path strewn with obstacles, opponents and question marks.
He said he sees the nomination battle unfolding, at least initially, as some have in the past, with a candidate favored by the party establishment pitted against a conservative or populist insurgent. But this time, Cruz is planning for a different outcome, with grass-roots conservatives — evangelicals, tea party activists, libertarians and others — coalescing to defeat the establishment.
Cruz is not a believer in conventional politics or conventional wisdom. Should he prevail in defeating his party’s establishment and winning the nomination contest, his formula for winning a general election also runs counter to the view of many political analysts, including GOP strategists.
He doesn’t dismiss the need to improve the party’s standing among minorities, particularly Hispanics. But he sees a different route, arguing that possible vote gains among those minority groups are “dwarfed” by the millions of conservatives, Reagan Democrats and otherwise disaffected Americans who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 because they found the Republican presidential nominees, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, uninspiring or insufficiently conservative.
Cruz doesn’t believe demographic shifts have put the Republicans at as much of a disadvantage as many analysts have said. What’s needed, he argues at almost every stop, is a true conservative nominee rather than someone who runs “to the mushy middle.” That strategy has been tried and failed, he said. His mission is to persuade enough Republicans to turn to him to pursue a different path.
“The single biggest reason we decided to run was when I looked at the other candidates, all of whom I like and respect, I didn’t see a whole lot of candidates who I thought were likely to energize and mobilize and inspire the millions of conservatives who were staying home,” Cruz said.
To do that, he must first overcome hurdles within his own party, starting with Trump and Carson, both of whom must fall for him to flourish. Beyond that, he is seen among establishment Republicans as too conservative to win a general election, a candidate who they fear could lead the party to a historic defeat.
In the interview, Cruz offered another view, describing in some detail how he envisions the campaign unfolding and why he believes the race sets up well for him.
In past nomination contests, there was often an early consensus choice from the mainstream conservative wing of the party. (Cruz calls it the moderate establishment wing.) This year, he argues, is different.
“The moderate lane is unbelievably crowded,” he said. “There are four, five or six candidates who are fighting like cats and dogs. They’re going to spend millions ripping each other apart. This cycle, moderates are acting like conservatives typically do.”
In contrast, he argued, the conservative lane has become less crowded than some had predicted. Two candidates competing for the conservative base, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas governor Rick Perry, have already dropped out. Some others have not yet shown the ability to build substantial support, he said.
Cruz didn’t name them, but that list could include the two past winners of the Iowa caucuses, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, as well as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
That still leaves Trump and Carson, who continue to attract close to half of the GOP primary vote. Cruz and his advisers believe that, as the campaign enters a more serious phase, when the records and experience of all the candidates will be more closely examined, the two non-politicians will fade.
How long he is prepared to wait to see if they fall is a strategic question he’s not yet ready to answer publicly.
In the interview, Cruz simply asserted that neither Trump nor Carson would end up as the Republican nominee, adding: “I believe that we are going to win the conservative bracket.”
If support for Trump and Carson does begin to weaken, many Republicans believe the nomination contest could narrow to a competition between Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. If that were to happen, the two young Cuban Americans represent the competing theories of what Republicans must do to win the White House.
Both have been buoyed by strong performances in the past two GOP debates. In the days after last week’s debate in Milwaukee, the two clashed sharply over immigration, which Cruz sees as a critical fault line that he hopes to exploit by highlighting Rubio’s support for a Senate bill that included a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants now in the country. Rubio’s advisers are confident they can neutralize Cruz’s attacks.
Cruz said he sees a battle with Rubio for the nomination as plausible and has said the Floridian would be a strong opponent. But, noting the intensity of the competition among Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, he said it’s not yet obvious who will prevail.
Cruz acknowledges that in past elections, the candidate with establishment credentials and establishment money generally has won the nomination, in part by capturing more than enough conservative votes to win. “Their strategy was to keep conservatives splintered,” he said. “If conservatives ever unite, it’s game over.”
Cruz could have advantages that candidates from the party’s most conservative wing have not had in the past. One is money. Through the third quarter of the year, Cruz had raised $26.6 million for his campaign, second only to Carson among the Republicans.
He had more cash on hand — at $13.8 million — than any other GOP candidate (not counting Trump, who is funding his own campaign). He also had the second-highest amount stockpiled through the second quarter in his super PACs, although Bush’s super PAC dwarfs all others.
The second asset is organization. Earlier, Cruz announced that he had county chairs in all 171 counties in the first four states on the voting calendar — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. In the interview, he said the campaign has identified organizational chairs in every congressional district in the states that hold contests from Feb. 1 to March 14.
“Nobody else has anything close to that level of infrastructure, organization,” he explained. “This campaign’s strength, the heart of the campaign, is the grass roots.”
He declined to say which among the first four states could give him his first victory but nonetheless called the nomination calendar “a tremendous asset” to his candidacy.
“I don’t believe we have to win any of those four,” he said. But conceding that no one has won the nomination without a victory in the early states, he added, “There is no doubt that if we get blown out of the water in the first four states, it’s game over.”
The states that come next form the heart of Cruz’s strategy, starting with those voting March 1. On that date, roughly a dozen states will vote — with a concentration in the South, including his home state of Texas. “No other candidate has the natural base of support in those states,” he said. “Those are Southern states. They’re conservative states. They’re evangelical states.”
Cruz’s strategy would come apart if the candidate favored by the establishment also finds significant support in the party’s conservative base. Rubio appears to have that potential; as a result, Cruz will try to persuade anti-Washington conservatives that Rubio would be indebted to the establishment if he were president.
“Candidates make a decision,” Cruz said. “Whose agenda are they going to champion, the big-money moderate donors in New York and California or the grass-roots activists? Often those agendas are in direct conflict. . . . If you choose to take one path, you are closing off the other path to yourself.”
Cruz wears with pride his quarrels with GOP leaders in Washington. “I’ll give you a very simple syllogism that my chief strategist laid out at the beginning,” Cruz said. “ ‘America hates Washington. Washington hates you. That ain’t bad.’ ”
On Veterans Day, Cruz was in Kingston, N.H., where he spoke to an overflow crowd at VFW Post 1088. There, he talked about the parallels he sees with the late 1970s and how the trends resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
“It didn’t come from Washington,” he said of the Reagan revolution that changed the direction of the country. “Washington despised Ronald Reagan. It came from the American people to turn this country around.”
That is the message he now carries from state to state in his quest to score the ultimate victory over the party establishment.