After announcing his campaign for the presidency Monday morning at Liberty University, Ted Cruz bowed his head in prayer as a school official intoned, “Father, thank you for this great man.” Despite the solemnity of the moment, it was possible to detect a grin of contentment creep across Cruz’s face. All is going according to plan.
The national media appears convinced he will never get anywhere close to the 2016 GOP nomination, but fortunately for Cruz, his plan doesn’t involve catering to the pundit class, fixated as they tend to be on daily polling figures and related ephemera.
The tactical wisdom of launching a campaign at Liberty, the powerhouse Evangelical outpost in Lynchburg, Virginia, could be seen as dubious insofar as it risks balkanizing Cruz into a Christian exclusivist box, closing him off from other constituencies in a Republican primary contest. And it’s true that Liberty is fairly removed from the cultural mainstream: Here, rumors of alcohol consumption are conveyed in hushed tones, gleaned from a friend of a friend. (One student, a junior, told me he’d heard of drinking-related incidents only once or twice, and was flabbergasted by tales of intoxicated debauchery from elsewhere.) The melodies of Christian rock anthems stream throughout campus even in the early morning hours via speakers attached to lamp posts. Cruz was clearly appealing to a very specific element here.
But another way to see the venue selection is that Cruz wants to nail down the conservative Christian contingent early in the process—preempting Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and others—and then proceed to court national security hawks and Club for Growth types. Cruz seems to be betting that he can assemble an historic GOP primary coalition; religious conservatives customarily fracture and allow the “establishment” to get its way. But the “establishment” could also find itself fractured this time around, as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker jockey amongst themselves. Evangelicals, while not a monolith by any stretch, tend to be attuned to cultural signaling. And the historic nature of Cruz’s announcement, the first of its kind at Liberty, won’t soon be forgotten. So they will serve as his natural base, and from there he can make forays into other constituencies, consolidating just enough of a bloc to undermine the “establishment.” That’s the Cruz logic, anyway.
Though the convocation had all the trappings of a religious service, it was not technically classified as such for legal purposes. Jerry Falwell, Jr., who succeeded his late father as president of the university in 2007, told me, “We spent over a week making sure that we abided by all the rules that apply to 501(c)3 organizations. We made sure it was not a campaign event; he actually announced his candidacy just prior to the event today.” Falwell was apparently referring to a tweet Cruz put out hours earlier.
David Corry, general counsel for Liberty, elaborated: “It was a Liberty University event, it wasn’t a campaign event. There are certain hallmarks of a campaign event.” Such hallmarks include official campaign banners and placards, which were indeed absent.
Liberty students are required to attend convocation meetings or face a $10 fine, and a number expressed an air of respectful indifference toward Cruz. “My parents say he’s pretty cool,” Dylan Harrell, a sophomore, shrugged. Like much of the student body, Harrell—a “spiritual life coach”—is a presumptive Republican, but not especially invested in national electoral politics. Others were more exuberant, such as the young woman who squealed with delight upon obtaining a selfie with the senator, then ran off to celebrate with her friends, hopping up and down.
Prior to Monday, a theory had been percolating that Cruz was strong-armed into a premature announcement by Rand Paul; word circulated last week that Paul scheduled his own presidential kickoff for April 7. One Cruz strategist dismissed this as poppycock, and there appears to be a burgeoning animosity between the rival camps. In his speech, Cruz made a point to exhort, “Imagine a federal government that protected the privacy rights of every American.” Advisers later confirmed to me that Cruz would overtly pursue libertarian-leaning voters conventionally seen as natural stalwarts for Paul.
Still, there were signs of potential organizational mishaps owing to the last-minute nature of the thing. (Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia was originally scheduled to headline the convocation Monday morning, but got unceremoniously bumped.) Several young men told me that the university’s Office of Student Leadership directed them to sit in the area designated for media, purportedly so it would not be filled exclusively with people staring into their phones. This produced a somewhat bemusing scene, as students clasping miniature American flags stood and swayed to Chris Tomlin’s “Our God,” while journalists in their vicinity remained seated.
The crowd exulted when Cruz shouted-out homeschooling and the Second Amendment, but his most rapturous ovation came when he exhorted the audience to “imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel.” Cruz feels he can make genuine inroads with Jewish donors. Indeed, as the convocation was winding down, Cruz was hustled out of the hall en route to New York for the inaugural gathering of a “Jews4Cruz” fundraising klatsche, headlined by a former Mitt Romney bundler.
It remains to be seen if Cruz can avoid the trap that doomed Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012, both of whom managed to scrape out wins in Iowa before being overwhelmed by the old-guard GOP donor class in subsequent states. Cruz has the Evangelicals, and he could feasibly poach enough of the neoconservatives and free-marketers to achieve a critical mass. It’s a new formula, and an untested one. It might fail spectacularly. But there was something portentous about Cruz’s Liberty presentation. History repeats itself, until it doesn’t.