By all accounts, Ted Cruz, a man who has been in the Senate for all of seven months and was virtually unknown on the national scene just a year ago, dazzled Republicans during a weekend visit to Iowa. That was due first, of course, to Cruz’s considerable appeal as a politician. But the intensity of Cruz-mania could also reflect an emerging Republican unhappiness with the party’s 2016 presidential field.
Think back to 2011 and 2012. Many Republicans were deeply dissatisfied with their field, which saw Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum lead the race before Mitt Romney finally captured the GOP nomination. But at the same time they bemoaned their choices, Republicans often remarked that the party had a “deep bench” for the future, and that the 2016 GOP primary race would be an “embarrassment of riches.”
That was then. Now, even though the race has not fully begun, Republicans in early-voting states are already taking a closer look at potential candidates. And when that happens, flaws emerge. At some point in the process, GOP voters will (probably) make their peace with at least one candidate’s flaws. But at this early stage, there’s a lot of evaluating — much of it negative — going on.
Some of the complaints: Sen. Marco Rubio has hurt himself by taking the lead on comprehensive immigration reform. Rep. Paul Ryan was on the last losing ticket and might also anger the base on immigration. Gov. Bobby Jindal fails to ignite Republican passions. Sen. Rand Paul can be divisive. Gov. Chris Christie is too willing to work with Democrats (especially the one in the White House). Rick Santorum doesn’t have broad enough appeal. Former Gov. Jeb Bush carries his family’s baggage.
None are crippling weaknesses, and any one of these potential candidates might look much different a year from now. But the fact is, Republicans are in a period of flaw-finding at the moment, and they are finding flaws in most of the politicians who will make up their 2016 field.
And then along comes Ted Cruz. Straight-down-the-line conservative, smart as hell, anti-establishment, ready for a fight, professing a principles-based approach to politics — Cruz says what many Iowa conservative activists want to hear. And in the last few days they have heard it for the first time from a man who doesn’t have a very long record to complicate things. On top of that, Cruz is great with a crowd, big or small: he is a captivating speaker who leaves audiences fired up about themselves and their cause — and about Ted Cruz.
On Sunday, as Iowa Republicans were thinking about what they had just seen, I asked several if the Cruz phenomenon might be rooted at least in part in incipient dissatisfaction with the GOP field.
“I think Republicans, but especially conservatives, have soured on the likes of Rubio, Ryan, and Christie since the 2012 election,” answered Craig Robinson of the influential Iowa Republican blog:
Rubio and Ryan are being stung by the immigration bug, and while it is non-lethal, it’s going to damage your brand among the Republican base in a place like Iowa. Jindal, and even Scott Walker, are liked amongst the Republican base, but they must raise their national profile before they will be able to rank among top potential 2016 presidential candidates. Activists see Christie and Bush as a continuation of the more moderate Republicans that the party has nominated in 2008 and 2012 and will do anything not to have a three-peat defeat in 2016.
Rand Paul is a serious contender, but he’s viewed as a continuation of the policies and politics of his father. Cruz, on the other hand, represents the only fresh face for Republicans to rally around. While he has only served in elected office for seven months, he’s someone who is extremely comfortable with who he is and what he believes in. I don’t think he’s a flash in the pan, either. In fact, he may be the best-positioned national figure to run for president because, unlike Rubio and Paul, he’s not up for re-election. He also hails from a big red conservative state that has enough money to float a presidential campaign.
“I was an early skeptic,” Robinson concluded. “But after meeting [Cruz] I think he’s the real deal. I was really impressed with him.”
Others shared similar impressions. “I agree,” said veteran Republican activist Chuck Laudner. “[Conservatives] are certainly looking for a fighter. In only seven months, Cruz has set the bar pretty high. Add that to the base being furious with their own leadership and establishment, and Cruz is the only current member of the field responding across the board.”
“Very refreshing,” said Sam Clovis, the western Iowa radio host who is now running for the Senate. “Most activists in Iowa are sick and tired of what they perceive as more of the same.”
“Conservatives are tired of lip service,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and a Republican national committeeman. “They won’t support candidates who won’t pledge to totally defund Obamacare and also who oppose a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. [Cruz] will be very attractive to the base.”
“I mostly agree,” added longtime social conservative Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader. “The Cruz phenomenon is unlike anything I’ve witnessed. It’s very real and surreal at the same time.” Vander Plaats said his group’s big event in August will be a further test of Cruz’s appeal. “If he continues down this impressive path, he will likely squeeze many others who are thinking about running.”
It’s obviously still very early to handicap the Republican race. Candidates who appear out of favor today may find themselves in favor in 2014, 2015, and 2016. But Iowa conservatives have reacted so strongly to Cruz for a reason, and it is not just his powerful speaking style. They are unhappy with their party’s establishment, and with any candidates who remind them of the establishment. Cruz, newly arrived in Washington and seemingly determined to irritate his party’s power structure in the Senate, appeals to that anti-establishment streak. It’s not clear if he will even run — true to custom, he was coy about it in Iowa interviews — but there is no doubt he has the potential to make a big impression on the race. “If Senator Cruz continues communicating and leading as he currently is,” Vander Plaats tweeted Friday, “the 2016 field will narrow quickly.”