Ted Cruz’s splashy entry into the 2016 race Monday intensifies the early battle to consolidate conservative voters who are intent on denying the Republican Party establishment yet another presidential nomination.
In a primary fight more up for grabs than Republicans have seen in a generation, at least a half-dozen credible contenders are likely to join Cruz in competing for the hearts of conservatives. They face a labyrinth of tests of ideology and temperament, on talk radio and at tea party and faith forums, in a melee to become the hard right’s standard-bearer.
Cruz, a 44-year-old senator from Texas whose combative posture has made him a household name for restive conservative activists nationally, offered himself in his announcement speech Monday as an uncompromising champion for evangelical Christian voters as well.
Other rivals, chiefly former Florida governor Jeb Bush, are positioning themselves instead as favorites of the business and mainstream wings of the GOP.
But the emerging Republican scramble cannot be neatly defined by the establishment and the conservative grass roots. There are myriad, fluid categories that intersect in other ways: The candidates can be grouped generationally and geographically. Some of their pitches are focused on domestic issues, others on foreign policy. And there is a divide between first-term senators in Washington who offer rhetoric and ideas, and governors who plan to run on their records of enacting change in their states.
The key for each candidate, party strategists said, is finding a way to stitch together coalitions while preserving his or her political viability in the general election, when Democrats will have a demographic advantage.
“Everybody starts off from a certain part of the party, but the candidate who can expand his base, who can speak in terms that unite this party, is the candidate who wins,” said Dick Wadhams, a veteran GOP consultant. “This thing is wide open, and the debates are going to make the difference.”
By officially launching his campaign Monday at Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell, Cruz tied his candidacy to his Christian faith and signaled that outreach to evangelicals will be central to his political calculus.
He faces stiff competition. The past two winners of the Iowa caucuses, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, have strong followings among social conservatives and are preparing for repeat bids in 2016. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson also is wooing the religious right and spoke over the weekend at televangelist Pat Robertson’s 85th-birthday party.
Edward J. Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, said that Cruz is angling to become “the leader of the tea party, which has never really had a leader, and bring together evangelicals.” He added that Cruz has the potential to “crowd out Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson.”
Cruz, like Huckabee, Santorum and Carson, will rely expressly on Christian conservatives and small-dollar donors to help propel his candidacy.
“Cruz is occupying just one of the lanes, the social-conservative, right-wing, tea party lane — and it’s an important lane,” said Douglas E. Gross, a Bush ally and prominent Iowa Republican. “Cruz’s hope is that his lane is big enough to have an impact on the entire process and enable him to finish in the top two in Iowa. There is, however, no guarantee that a one-lane campaign is enough.”
Other contenders are making overtures to social conservatives but have the potential to rally significant support in other parts of the party as well.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is making his blue-collar, small-town upbringing as the son of a Baptist pastor part of his stump appeal. Former Texas governor Rick Perry has vigorously built ties to religious activists in Iowa and other early-voting states, while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has been huddling with evangelical power brokers.
Bush, meanwhile, enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of conservative Christians while serving as governor, earning praise when he intervened to keep Terri Schiavo on a feeding tube despite her husband’s objections.
“Quite frankly, Jeb will make a play for evangelicals even though he’s getting pigeonholed,” said Brett O’Donnell, a former debate coach at Liberty who has advised conservative candidates. “He has to remind people about what he did.”
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) hopes to expand his unique base of libertarians and college students by picking up support from evangelicals — and Cruz is a particular threat. With his fire-and-brimstone oratory, the Texan presents a more vivid persona than the low-key Paul. The timing of Cruz’s announcement is a setback for Paul, who is planning to announce his own campaign in early April.
“Everybody is trying to split this liberty, social-conservative pie,” said Johnnie Moore, an author and high-profile young evangelical leader. “A lot of evangelicals in America are going to hold their cards close, behave in a very coy and smart way, and make all the candidates support their principles.”
Gary L. Bauer, a longtime social-conservative leader, said, “There’s a desire for a relatively early consensus to form that this candidate or that candidate is the right conservative to go head to head with the establishment alternative.”
Bush has set the pace for the field, raising tens of millions of dollars from Republican elites. He has cast himself as a viable nominee in a general election, arguing that he has the ability to attract moderates, independent voters and minorities.
“They want a winner,” said Edward F. Cox, chairman of the New York State Republican Party. “Up against Hillary Clinton, many donors are looking for someone who can put us over the top.”
In the establishment contest, Bush faces competition for donors and other influential players from Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Rubio and Walker are offering themselves as fresh faces who can make a generational contrast with Clinton, who has been in the national spotlight for more than two decades.
“It’s not just philosophy, it’s not just ideology, it is also the way you project your candidacy and temperament,” said Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP. “If you run on a very narrow ideological basis, I don’t think that’s going to win in 2016.”
Another area of differentiation for the field is in their résumés. Republicans have spent much of the Obama era lamenting the president’s lack of executive experience and his four-year tenure in the Senate. Cruz, Paul and Rubio would be running with similar backgrounds — and could face skepticism from GOP voters about their lack of management know-how. By contrast, Bush, Perry, Walker and Christie are touting actions they took as governors to bring conservative policy changes to their states.
“The difference between a Cruz and a Perry or a Walker or a Bush is that the governors have actually implemented conservative reforms and have governed complicated institutions as conservatives,” said Steve Schmidt, a strategist for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
There is also a growing swarm of long-shot contenders.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump is preparing to launch a campaign and could create pressure points for other candidates on the debate stage. Carly Fiorina, a former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, has made waves with her sharp attacks on Clinton and could emerge as a formidable force as the only female Republican candidate.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), one of Washington’s leading hawks, will push the candidates to advocate a muscular foreign policy should he run, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former New York governor George E. Pataki are seriously weighing campaigns of their own.