The Republican establishment despises Ted Cruz. And that's great news for the senator from Texas: It's the most prominent sign that he's the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
Conservatives are deeply frustrated with the party's presidential politics. In their telling — and it's a story they tell a lot — the establishment has blown it the last two elections by demanding the party accept moderate squishes as their nominees. John McCain and Mitt Romney might lack the conservative fervor of most activists, but party bosses explained they were the only ones who stood a chance in the general election. Except both men went on to lose, badly.
Now those same conservatives, the kind who control primaries in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, vow they won't listen again in 2016. "We have a lot of people claiming to be conservatives who constantly score for the other team. And people are disgusted by it," said Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa social-conservative power broker.
And that's where Cruz comes in. The firebrand's 21-hour faux-filibuster and no-surrender strategy during the government shutdown fight has endeared him to activists. The party establishment, meanwhile, is decrying a man they consider an ideologue unwilling to compromise even when the politics go south. Stay away from Ted Cruz, they say.
"There's a sense that we played it their way two straight campaign seasons for president, and we're not going to do that again," said John Brabender, who served as the chief strategist for Rick Santorum's second-place presidential campaign last year. "There is an angry, take-no-prisoner conservative out there saying, "˜Look, we're tired of negotiating, we're tired of compromising.' "
Suggesting that a band of activists can topple the party establishment in presidential politics can seem foolhardy, even at a time when those same conservatives control the House. But Santorum and Newt Gingrich gave Mitt Romney a run for his money last year, even though both men were political has-beens when the primary season began. Cruz is a senator from the country's largest conservative state, and he'll have two more years of Senate action to keep himself in the limelight. If a Ted Cruz had been around in 2012, he arguably could have beaten Romney by giving conservatives a single charismatic candidate to rally around.
Already, Cruz's no-compromise approach is working. His favorable ratings among tea-party Republicans have jumped from 47 percent to 74 percent since July — despite the negative attention of most mainstream media outlets, including the highly unusual decision of his home-state newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, to sharply criticize him. Traditionally, that would hurt a candidate. But not Cruz, and not for a tea-party base that feeds off media antipathy.
"While establishment folks will blame him for the shutdown, he will become a rock star for standing up and fighting the fight," said Dave Carney, a senior strategist for Rick Perry's presidential campaign. "When Ted Cruz ran for office, from the day he announced to the day he was elected, he always said he was going to defund Obamacare and stop Obamacare, and the fact is that he did exactly what he said he was going to do."
Carney added: "His scorn by the media and the establishment and Capitol Hill staff is just making him stronger. He comes across as a breath of fresh air."
Sure, Cruz's activism comes at a cost. (The same Pew Research Center poll found more non-tea-party Republicans dislike Cruz than like him.) The establishment, buttressed by the remaining moderate and liberal Republicans in the party, won't go away quietly.
But the former Ivy Leaguer doesn't need that wing of the party. He's already gone a long way toward securing the activist base. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Bobby Jindal, among others, will compete with him for the religious conservatives who constitute the party's conservative wing. But Cruz has already demonstrated something they haven't: a wild popularity among evangelicals.
Cruz easily dominated the Values Voter straw poll held earlier this month, winning more votes than Rubio, Jindal, and Paul combined. And his early visits to Iowa, the obvious launching pad for his presidential campaign, have received an uproarious reception. When he spoke in August during a social-conservative gathering, one local reporter wrote in no uncertain terms that Cruz "overshadowed" the previous winner of the Iowa caucuses, Santorum, who is a favorite of evangelicals in his own right.
"What's happened, the opposition, the Left, and the establishment of the Republican Party has elevated Ted Cruz to an unprecedented level if he chooses to run in 2016," said Vander Plaats. "I really believe if the Iowa caucuses were held today, I don't even think it'd be close. Ted Cruz would walk away with it."
Even the most cited drawback of losing establishment support — money — isn't a deal-breaker for the senator. Not in the super-PAC age, when a handful of wealthy donors can ensure Cruz has all the TV ad support he needs, or when Cruz's populist appeal is sure to attract a bounty of small-dollar donations. And even the party's moneyed interests are looking around. "I know a lot of conservative, wealthy donors who aren't going to fund the Rovian-type gambits anymore," said one conservative consultant, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. "They did last time, and they're done with them."
The Republican establishment hates Ted Cruz. And that's exactly where Cruz wants them.