Ted Cruz had a plan when he launched his presidential campaign from Liberty University last year — go hard right, go evangelical, or go home.
“Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home,” Cruz explained to the crowd at his campaign launch. “Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
Conservatives have imagined that scenario many times before — what if Republicans picked a nominee who spoke to the base of the party and didn’t bother to make room for the moderates? What if they had someone like Cruz, who declared loudly that abortion is wrong, guns are good and Jesus is the savior? And what if that candidate didn’t look for a third way or middle ground with Democrats, which is really just the same thing as giving up on what’s most important?
The middle way, they believed, has been tried, repeatedly, and failed, with Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Without a Republican who obviously shared their values in those years, conservatives reasoned, “values voters” stayed home.
In 2016, they could go the opposite direction and win. Or at least that was the plan for the Cruz campaign and its allies.
In a 51-page Power Point plan posted in July, Cruz’s super PAC, Keep the Promise, laid out the path to victory for Cruz, which Cruz the candidate continues to follow assiduously. First, it noted that the 2016 Republican primary calendar “leans South” and “leans conservative,” which is true.
The entire Deep South will vote by March 15, as will 11 states where evangelicals make up more than 50 percent of the GOP primary vote. While most campaigns kept their early focus in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz himself barnstormed the South in August looking for the pockets of evangelicals who would send him to the White House. Once there, he spoke from pulpits, describing himself as a “P.K.” (preacher’s kid), quoted the bible, and talked about the role of God in his life.
The plan also said “TED HAS REAL GROWTH POTENTIAL WITH EVANGELICALS AND LIBERTARIANS.” To appeal to those voters, the Cruz campaign dispatched Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, who is a pastor, to work for more than a year with faith leaders across the country to build out a new Christian coalition for Cruz. Today, the campaign continues to hold weekly prayer calls behind the scenes, while Cruz infuses his all of speeches with the language of scripture.
At a Super Tuesday rally in Atlanta on Saturday in front of the Georgia state Capitol, Cruz said he’d give the audience a message of “exhalation” and call for “a spirit of awakening.” Of the five things he promised to do on his first day in office, three top the wish list of Christian Conservative activists — investigating Planned Parenthood, telling the Department of Justice its “persecution of religious liberty ends today,” and moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But somewhere between Liberty University and the South Carolina primary, Cruz’s narrrow-and-deep Christian turnout strategy ran into to the thrice-married, casino-owning, Two Corinthians buzz saw named Donald Trump, who has taken the evangelical vote from Cruz in three out of the first four contests and seems poised to repeat himself on Super Tuesday. It seems even evangelicals see an appeal in Trump’s unambiguous message of strength and have faith in his promise to protect them and their religious values as president, even if he doesn’t exactly share them.
Bruce Galloway, Cruz’s Faith Engagement co-chair in Georgia, said Cruz’s strategy was and is the right one for a simple reason. “You know why he did that? Because that’s who he is. That’s his core values. That’s his core beliefs,” Galloway said. “I think he felt that he could get those individuals to coalesce around him. He speaks their language, he lives out their faith.”
Galloway said he thinks Trump’s campaign is appealing to evangelicals fears about the future and says Cruz will surprise people with his finish in Georgia and across the South on Tuesday.
Cruz has clearly gotten evangelicals and conservatives to vote for him, but not enough. Had he taken a broader path, the results might have been different. Even in the face of his losses, he seems to have made few adjustments to the post-Trump reality that Republicans are facing and now seems to be bleeding voters to Marco Rubio, who has ripped a page out of Trump’s playbook and is mean-Tweet-reading his way to a second-place surge in many Super Tuesday polls.
If Cruz doesn’t live up to expectations on Tuesday, the campaign’s experiment with “bold colored conservatism,” as Cruz calls it, may end up showing the limits of limits, especially limits that a campaign chooses to put on its own appeal to the electorate, of either the party or the country. The 2016 campaign is blowing up assumptions about politics every day, but one lesson still holds true — that elections are still about addition and not subtraction. And Cruz’s math to get the White House has never added up.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter at @1patriciamurphy. Related:
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