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Election analysis: Ted Cruz ran a good campaign – for 2012

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a primary night campaign event Tuesday in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a primary night campaign event Tuesday in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
By Maria Recio Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – He was the first of 17 Republicans to announce his presidential run in a commanding, preacherlike speech at a religious university.

A little over a year later, he stood in defeat in an Indianapolis ballroom, trying to contain his bitter disappointment as his wife fought back tears.

What happened in between was a tale of great ambition, great talent, a solid campaign and a series of missteps.

Cruz in many ways ran a solid, disciplined campaign. But it was a good campaign against Mitt Romney circa 2012, and never clicked against someone like Donald Trump in a far different landscape in 2016.

He courted evangelicals and the South – often the door to the nomination – but found Trump’s siren call was stronger than his sermons on religious liberty. He raised money early, but found his message overwhelmed by Trump’s dominance of the news media. He cast himself as the outsider inside the Senate, but saw Trump standing completely outside of traditional politics. And he reveled in the loathing of D.C. politicos, then found it hard to get voters to like him either.

“If you can’t get along with the people you’re working with, you’re definitely going to be a failure as a leader,” said Denise Moe, a Republican primary voter from Carmel, Ind., who voted for Trump. “Someone that is not respected by their colleagues or employees, that absolutely played a role in my deciding to vote for Mr. Trump.”

From the moment he was elected to the Senate from Texas in 2012, Cruz had his eye on a bigger target: the presidency. But he didn’t set out to do it by winning friends. Instead, he set out to get attention as a conservative willing to buck the Republican Party establishment. And he did, becoming a national figure when he helped force a partial federal government shutdown in 2013 with a 21-hour speech.

“It’s been a remarkable run,” said Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

By the time he launched his presidential campaign at Liberty University in Virginia on March 23, 2015, Cruz had become a divisive figure in the Senate and in the Republican establishment, but a hero to many on the right.

Southern Strategy

In a 45-minute speech, Cruz laid out his game plan to vanquish traditional GOP opponents and win the White House: compete from the right by emphasizing social issues and exciting the evangelical voters who he said had not voted in prior GOP primaries.

To do that, Cruz would concentrate on the South – it was there that he expected to make his mark by winning in South Carolina on Feb. 20 and picking up seven Southern states in the so-called SEC primary on March 1.

“They had a strategy thinking the race would be over” by then, said Steve Munisteri, a former chairman of the Republican Party in Texas. “He positioned himself ideologically more to the Southeastern states.”

Cruz did win the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses Feb. 1 with evangelical help. Two out of three caucus attendees called themselves born-again Christians, and Cruz took a plurality with 34 percent of them. In a warning sign, though, Trump took 22 percent of the evangelical vote, a surprisingly large slice for a man Cruz said had “New York values,” rather than small-town Christian values.

Missteps

Indeed, as the campaign turned to the South, Cruz found more evangelicals embracing Trump.

Trump had the support of some prominent evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the very university where Cruz kicked off his campaign. At the same time, evangelical voters in the South signaled they were as interested in Trump’s bold persona and other stands as on social issues.

“Cruz’s mistakes included an assumption that evangelicals and social conservatives were his base and there was no way they’d be attracted to Trump,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Cruz lost the evangelical vote to Trump and finished a disappointing third in South Carolina, site of the first primary in the South.

He won his home state of Texas with an underwhelming 44 percent of the vote on March 1. Trump came in second in Texas, with 26.7 percent, still gaining 48 delegates.

By Mississippi a week later, where 84 percent of Republican voters were evangelicals, Trump was handily winning evangelical voters.

“There are far fewer who carry their Christian principles into their political selection,” said Jillson, explaining how evangelicals accepted the three-times-married Trump.

“The whole Donald Trump phenomenon derailed his strategy of coalescing the conservative wing around him,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University.

Florida

Nearing the Florida primary on March 15, Cruz made a miscalculation.

With Trump leading in the polls in the winner-take-all mega-state, Cruz decided this was the place to drive Sen. Marco Rubio, a rival Cuban-American from Florida, out of the race.

Cruz opened 10 field offices throughout the state and a pro-Cruz super PAC unleashed attack ads against Rubio. “Florida was a bad move,” said Munisteri.

Instead of trying to stop Trump from winning all of the state’s 99 delegates, the Cruz campaign was trying to take Rubio down. Rubio did suspend his campaign after placing a distant second to Trump, but the added effort in Florida, and the result, didn’t help Cruz in later states.

“They needed to keep Rubio in the race,” said Munisteri.

Trump bromance

For months, Cruz treated Trump as a friend.

Even when the billionaire was being vilified by contenders such as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Cruz embraced him in the hope that, eventually, Trump would fail and Trump supporters would naturally transfer their loyalty to Cruz.

Cruz, who had a detailed program on issues, also wound up in Trump’s shadow, embracing Trump’s call to build a wall on the border and reversing his support for expanding the H1-B visas for high-skilled workers.

“Cruz was buddy-buddy with Trump for far too long,” Sabato said. “Cruz thought Trump would be satisfied chewing on the others, but Trump simply saved Cruz for last.”

“Cruz’s orthodox message resonated with a narrow segment in the party but didn’t capture the soul of the Republican electorate this cycle,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science, University of Houston.

Who loves ya?

Cruz once accused his own party leader, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of “lying” on the Senate floor. He also began plotting with House conservatives to ensure a government shutdown over funding for Obamacare, going over to the House side of the Capitol complex for strategy sessions. In the closing days of the Indiana campaign, former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who tangled with Cruz and his House supporters over the shutdown, called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh” and a “miserable son-of-a-bitch.”

“He burned a lot of bridges along the way,” John Feehery, a veteran GOP adviser who worked for GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, said of Cruz’s campaign.

Oh, Canada

If they ever were friends, Trump turned on Cruz in January as the primary season loomed. Trump took aim at Cruz’s Canadian birth as a factor that should disqualify him from the presidency because of the Constitution’s requirement that the elected U.S. leader be a “natural born citizen.”

The attacks gained some traction – though Cruz, a Harvard-educated lawyer, vigorously argued his mother’s U.S. citizenship made him eligible. And the Texas senator was forced to “lawyer up” against more than a half-dozen lawsuits, most of which were dismissed.

Scandal

Then there were the National Enquirer tabloid headlines, denounced by his campaign as “garbage,” alleging that Cruz had been involved with five women outside his marriage, that his phone number was in the black book of a woman who ran a Washington brothel, and that his father was linked to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Cruz angrily denounced Trump the morning of the Indiana primary as a “narcissist” who had planted the stories with the tabloid, which endorsed the billionaire.

Lyin’ Ted

But the nickname “Lyin’ Ted” may have had the most impact, taking root just as the Iowa caucuses were about to begin, and ceaselessly repeated by Trump throughout the campaign.

The evening of Feb. 1, the Cruz campaign in Iowa put out the word that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, popular with evangelicals, was likely to exit the race and urged voters to switch to Cruz.

Cruz said it was based on a CNN report that Carson was going home to Florida instead of to New Hampshire, as were the other candidates. But CNN said Cruz misrepresented their report. Cruz even met with Carson in a closet prior to the South Carolina to explain himself but Carson rejected his overtures, and when he exited the race, Carson endorsed Trump.

Trump as recently as the morning of the Indiana primary was still calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted.”

What’s next

Cruz’s Senate term isn’t up until 2018, and while he may be a prospect for a Cabinet post or the Supreme Court if Trump, the presumptive nominee, wins, his supporters are looking at another presidential campaign for the 45-year-old.

Cruz could have prolonged the campaign, with a strong war chest and support in upcoming Nebraska and California, but he made a strategic move. His last-minute Indiana moves – working out a non-compete deal with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and naming Carly Fiorina his running mate – didn’t do Cruz much good. But suspending the campaign leaves the door open to the future.

Kellyanne Conway, a GOP consultant who heads a super PAC supporting Cruz said, “It is the right call. He is young, has a long career ahead of him, cannot be blamed for shredding the party at a convention, and has showed grace in loss.”

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