To hell with the independents. That’s not usually the animating principle of a presidential campaign, but for Ted Cruz’s, it just might be.
His strategists aren’t planning to make a big play for so-called independent voters in the general election if Cruz wins the Republican nomination. According to several of the senator’s top advisers, Cruz sees a path to victory that relies instead on increasing conservative turnout; attracting votes from groups — including Jews, Hispanics, and Millennials — that have tended to favor Democrats; and, in the words of one Cruz strategist, “not getting killed with independents.”
Twenty-three months from the presidential election, it seems all but a given that the freshman senator, who has been in Congress just two years, will mount a bid for the White House. “He’s looking at the race very seriously,” says a senior adviser, who confirms that Cruz’s campaign headquarters would be based in Houston. Cruz strategists see a way to win both the nomination and the general election. They are assiduously cultivating the party’s top-dollar donors, almost all of whom remain uncommitted. Internally, the senator has shaken up his staff to address problems and to set the stage for a presidential bid. All that’s left, it seems, is an official announcement.
It’s almost conventional wisdom now that presidential candidates woo the party faithful in primary contests and tack to the middle in the general election to attract more-moderate voters. Not Cruz. As one of his advisers puts it, “winning independents has meant not winning.” The adviser says the moderate fiscal- and social-policy positions that candidates need to adopt to win independent voters have dampened base turnout.
He points to the examples of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. Bush won independents in 2000 but lost the popular vote, while both John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012 won them and, of course, still lost. Beyond that, the strategist explains, conservative turnout peaked in 2004, declined in 2008, and declined again in 2012. Recapturing those votes, he says, is the key to a potential Cruz victory. The senator’s advisers believe they can increase turnout to between 2004 and 2008 levels, at least, by energizing the grassroots and recapturing Reagan Democrats.
Lavishing less attention on independents isn’t a revolutionary strategy; in fact, it’s the one that helped George W. Bush win reelection in 2004. That year, Kerry won independents by three points, 50 to 47 percent. In Ohio, the key swing state, Kerry won independents by a whopping 19-point margin, 59–40, but Bush carried the state by two points. GOP strategist Karl Rove exploited the fact that the number of truly persuadable voters in the country had decreased dramatically from about 20 percent of the population in the 1970s to about 6 percent in 2000. In what became known as the “base strategy,” Rove put more resources into mobilizing Evangelicals who had not turned out to vote in 2000 rather than trying to persuade the 6 percent. He believed that he could more than offset Bush’s losses with independent voters. He was right.
The Obama campaign made a similar calculation in 2012. While Romney made a play for independent voters with a strictly economic message, the president played a different game. The election analyst Charlie Cook noted as early as September 2011 that “by turning away from independents and appealing to his base, the president seems to be following the same playbook laid out by Karl Rove eight years ago.”
The strategy has its critics. Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center calls it “fantasy.” The Republican base, he says, simply isn’t large enough to win an election nationally, and the Republican nominee must “energize establishment Republicans and people who don’t call themselves conservatives.”
“The key for [Cruz] is to figure out how not to lose his authenticity with the Republican base while expanding his reach,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
That’s part of the plan. Cruz believes his populist and pugnacious conservatism will persuade some Millennials and traditionally Democratic voters, including Jews, Hispanics, blue-collar voters, and women. He has already gone to great lengths to court Jews, making it clear that he wants their approval, acceptance, and financial support. He turned up, for example, at Commentary magazine’s annual dinner in September 2013, the only potential 2016 candidate to do so. The senator also attended New York City’s Israel Day concert and parade in June — and then raised $100,000 at Abigail’s, a kosher restaurant in Manhattan. He gave an address last month to the Zionist Organization of America, preceded by a meeting with New York Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman and followed by meetings with Sheldon Adelson and the hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt, former chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. Steinhardt hosted Cruz in his office around a table with some of the Jewish community’s most influential political donors.
As for Hispanics, Millennials, and women, Cruz’s advisers point to internal polling showing that he won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas when he was elected in 2012, seven percentage points more than Mitt Romney won there, and to a Politico report indicating that, on social media, Cruz is the most talked-about presidential candidate on the right. And they argue that he has a logical appeal to female voters. They cite his speeches about the influence of the important women in his life, his support for Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill that would have removed sexual-assault cases from the military chain of command, and his attempts when he was a college student to confront the problem of date rape, news of which conveniently emerged as the Rolling Stone piece about a purported 2012 gang rape on the University of Virginia campus began to unravel and the controversy it sparked reached its apex. His wife, Heidi, a managing director in the Houston office of Goldman Sachs who burnished her political skills as an economic adviser on George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and then in the Bush White House, where she served on the National Security Council, will also undoubtedly play a role in his efforts to appeal to women.
However stubborn Cruz appears to his political foes, he has adjusted when needed within his own operation. Over the past several months, he has systematically reshuffled his staff in advance of a potential presidential bid. Despite a September announcement that his former chief of staff, Chip Roy, who, like Cruz, has a reputation as a bomb-thrower, would take on “a larger role in the senator’s political operation,” in November Roy left for a job in the Texas attorney general’s office. To replace him, Cruz tapped Paul Teller, a former aide to the Republican Study Committee with extensive ties to GOP lawmakers throughout Congress. He also brought on Nick Muzin, a soft-spoken intellectual with degrees from Yale Law School and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who splits his time between the Senate office and the campaign side. And in Texas, though Cruz already had a state director, he hired James Christoferson, a former Kay Bailey Hutchison aide, to tend to constituent services and quell any perception that the freshman senator was using his seat merely as a launching pad to the presidency.
If he does run, sources say, the campaign will be led by Jason Johnson, the architect of Cruz’s 2012 victory, and Jeff Roe, the founder of the Kansas City political-consulting firm Axiom Strategies, who sources say is planning a move to Texas. Roe did not respond to a request for comment. Chad Sweet, the co-founder and chief executive of the Chertoff Group and a former undercover CIA officer who served as the finance chairman of Cruz’s 2012 campaign, is also likely to play a senior role.
Meanwhile, Cruz is looking to expand his donor network from his grassroots fan base to the party’s moneyed establishment. At a dinner at the California Club in Los Angeles earlier this month, Cruz dined with a group of top-dollar donors, many of whom had served as bundlers for Mitt Romney. The group included venture capitalist Elliott Broidy, wealth manager Nick Stonnington, attorney Rick Richmond, and radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. According to one person present at the dinner, Cruz “made a very strong impression as being in a strong position to run the table against anybody but Romney.” Romney’s donors have a reputation for loyalty, and the dinner attendee says the donors present “won’t move until they get a signal from Romney that he is not running.”
Nonetheless, according to the source, Cruz “made quite an impression on people who can unleash a torrent of money if they want to.” Those present, the source says, came away convinced that Cruz has “a very clear path to the nomination.”
Behind Cruz’s fundraising efforts is Stand for Principle, an Atlanta-based super PAC. It was established by Maria Strollo Zack, a former aide to Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, but its guiding force is Cruz’s Princeton University debate partner and Harvard Law School classmate David Panton, who runs a private-equity firm based in Atlanta. In an interview, Panton calls himself a “supporter” of the PAC, but sources say he plays a far bigger role, reaching out to and vetting potential hires and doing a great deal of behind-the-scenes work. Asked about his former roommate, Panton says, “I do hope he runs for president, and I will do everything I can to support that effort.”
Cruz has quite a head start, having capitalized on the national attention and grassroots fan base he gained during last year’s government shutdown. He used it to build an e-mail list of what one senior adviser says is over a million unique addresses. “It’s going to take all hands on deck to stop Obamacare — we must elect conservative reinforcements back to the Senate,” read a message blasted out last March. “Will you please join our Money Bomb and contribute $35, $50, $75, $100, or even $250 right now to help us win this fight?”
The senator frequently invokes Ronald Reagan, and he has compared President Obama to Jimmy Carter, and the broader political environment of today to that of the late 1970s. “Let me remind you, in 1980, Washington, D.C., despised Ronald Reagan,” he told a crowd in Iowa last March. “And what happened was the American people rose up and brought the Republican party back to our core principles. And once they swept into office, then suddenly everybody became a Reagan Republican.” But the question that will hang over Cruz’s head as 2016 approaches is why he is more Reagan than Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who led the GOP to resounding defeat in the 1964 presidential election when he garnered just 38 percent of the vote. Goldwater, too, had unprecedented grassroots support but didn’t prove to be a successful standard-bearer for the party.
The assumption from one Cruz adviser is that it is the filter of the media that has generated the negativity surrounding Cruz and fueled the misperceptions about him. If he runs for president, the idea is that voters will see him unfiltered, and that he will succeed in persuading them. He will first have to win a primary, and another senior adviser tells me that there, he expects most of the contenders to offer poor imitations of Cruz’s anti-Washington shtick. “Do you think anybody’s going to out-anti-Washington Ted Cruz?” he asks. “Good luck.”
About that there is little doubt. The case Cruz will have to make — to donors, to primary voters, and, if he has the chance, to a general electorate — is why that message and strategy will produce a Reagan-like victory rather than a Goldwateresque defeat.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.