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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

WASHINGTON — Senator Ted Cruz is a decided underdog for the Republican presidential nomination, but he understands where his opening lies. And this, in turn, tells us a lot about the shape of the contest and the fight the GOP is about to have.

It is no accident that Cruz began his campaign at Liberty University — founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell — by asking evangelical conservatives to consolidate their support behind him. The most important sentence in his speech was this one: “Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting,” Cruz said. “They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”

Although Cruz has always been a religious conservative, he is much better known for his crusade against Obamacare and his willingness to shut down the federal government. His evangelical turn is his first play to create a base on the right end of the party to challenge Wisconsin governor Scott Walker as the main alternative to Jeb Bush.

The Cruz strategy starts with marginalizing former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, the physician and best-selling author who has developed a significant following on the right. Huckabee and Carson are also in the running for evangelical votes. If Cruz pushes them aside, he can then go after Walker and, after that, Bush.

Perhaps all this is fanciful, but Cruz knows what he’s doing.

So far, Walker’s emergence is the key development in the Republican race. “Walker has made a decision to run at Bush from the right and he’s trying to consolidate the very conservative vote,” says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a shrewd conservative voting analyst. “The pop for Walker in the polls shows the deep desire of very conservative voters in the Republican Party to find an alternative to Bush.”

The numbers tell the story. A McClatchy-Marist poll released earlier this month showed Bush and Walker at the front of the Republican pack. Among Republicans and independents who lean Republican, Bush had 19 percent, Walker had 18 percent.

But their constituencies are very different. Among moderates, Bush, the former Florida governor, led Walker 26 percent to 15 percent; conservatives gave Walker 20 percent to 18 percent for Bush. Among those who called themselves very conservative, on the other hand, Walker walloped Bush, 24 percent to 7 percent.

Walker’s main competitors for the “very conservative” vote were Huckabee and Carson at 19 percent each. Overall, Huckabee got 10 percent and Carson 9 percent. Add those constituencies up and you have a number that competes with both Walker and Bush.

Cruz may now be at only 4 percent nationwide in the McClatchy-Marist survey, but he can build a base by grabbing those who currently support Huckabee and Carson. And Cruz’s talk about “liberty” and the Constitution could help him shake loose some votes from Sen. Rand Paul.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who advises Senator Marco Rubio, has a rule about his party’s nomination contests: “No one faction is large enough to nominate its favorite candidate,” he says. “Whoever is nominated will be rooted in one of the factions, but will be acceptable to a number of the factions.”

Bush’s base is some combination of the remaining moderates in the GOP and the less zealous conservatives who often go under the name “Establishment.” Bush’s first priority will be to eliminate all competition on that side of the party. This means it’s important to him that New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s potential candidacy never gets off the ground and that Rubio not threaten him among more moderate voters. Bush then needs to be competitive enough with more conservative sections of the party, though he could luck out — as John McCain and Mitt Romney did — and get to watch as his more conservative rivals claw at each other and split up the vote at the right end of the GOP.

Cruz’s entry is thus very good news for Bush. He has as much interest in taking Walker down as Bush does, and the more right-of-center candidates there are on the ballot come next year, the better Bush’s chances will be.

Therefore, don’t believe anyone who says that little of what happens this year matters to an election that seems so far away. Cruz has just turned the battle for the political souls of religious conservatives into the first bloody crossroads of the GOP’s struggle. And Scott Walker needs to watch his back.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: U.S. senator Ted Cruz of Texas speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, MD. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

  • Carolyn1520

    “Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who advises Senator Marco Rubio, has a rule about his party’s nomination contests: “No one faction is large enough to nominate its favorite candidate,”

    There it is, like a can of mixed nuts. 🙂

    • adler56


    • Independent1

      What we need, is for millions of more Americans (especially right winters) to wake up and realize just how ‘nutty’ these GOP fruitcakes really are!!

      • Carolyn1520

        In my opinion, I don’t know that it even matters to them. When the GOP was hijacked, after inviting the creatures in, the thinking republicans left the party. It’s GOP in name only at this point. What remains are those people who stay not because they embrace the party as much as their dislikes/hatred/fears of all else rules them. Some are racists, some are anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-government and oversight, “reefer madness” believers, faux religious (as in pick and chose what tenets and doctrines they embrace), devout religious, religious fundamentalists, 1950’s traditionalists fearful of any and all change who want the “good old days” back when everyone knew their place and women wore aprons :-), climate deniers, misogynists, one percenters, etc. I’m leaving out a lot. 🙂
        They don’t all share the exact same dislikes and a good number also recognize the idiocy within the party but their feelings and or fears override it. They can live with it because what they dislike and fear is so powerful, it overshadows it. Many independents lean right but aren’t comfortable with being called a republican because they can’t embrace all of it nor the left for the same reasons. Many of the left leaning republicans became card carrying dems but aren’t progressives and in that sense have diluted the left’s base. The far left progressives foam at the mouth about that. Both parties have suffered changes but the right more so because their base is gone except for the old guys in office who want to keep their benefits and perks for as long as they can so sold out or they would have been drummed out of the party.

  • Duke

    Rafael Edwardo Cruz and family – Welcome to Obamacare ! Thanks for signing up !

  • CrankyToo

    What Ted Cruz knows would fit in the a$$ of a fly. And there’d still be room for his integrity.

  • phylin

    And he also believes in the Rapture that will lift him straight up to heaven.

    • Carolyn1520

      If only.
      Then the rest of us sinners could clean up the Earth and live in peace. 🙂

  • plc97477

    The primaries are going to be so funny. I am looking forward to their beating each other up.

  • Independent1

    “Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting,” Cruz said. “They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”

    It’s Amazing!! I guy who has worked almost constantly trying to repeal legislation that has been shown to have already saved more than 50,000 lives (Obamacare); and has supported one piece of legislation after another that either cuts benefits or is intended to cut benefits like SNAP and Social Security and Medicare; which are the life lines for millions of Americans in their struggles to afford things they need to just stay alive – like food and shelter and healthcare – actually has the audacity to pretend that he’s some kind of Christian!! What a charade this man can put on!!

    And what’s even more unfortunate, is that the students at Liberty University who were listening to Cruz; are being hoodwinked into believing that they’re actually attending a ‘true’ Christian University; when in reality; if they are actually being taught to support the GOP, they are really becoming nothing more than worshipers of the Devil!!!

  • [email protected]

    I would be very surprised if the election is not between Hillary and Jeb. Jeb would be the closes and with voting suppression It will be difficult for Hillary to win Ohio or Florida, but Hillary should win 91% of blacks, 85% of Hispanics, 65% of single woman, but Jeb will overwhelmingly carry the white males over 50 years of age. Hillary should win the election by approximately 5% and carry .N.C., Georgia, Colorado,

  • Crazy Ted — he’s a legend in his own mind. His father is crazy also.