Ted Cruz is the protest candidate nobody was asking for

The Republican Party has lots of B-list presidential contenders already. What does Cruz think he's adding?

Are you not entertained?
(Image credit: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

Ted Cruz is trying to catch lightning in a bottle. It's not clear why.

The race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is heating up, and we can safely say that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are going to join at some point this spring, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also frequently mentioned as probable contenders. Pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, two-time GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and some other people who won't win the nomination will likely announce, too.

Cruz, the junior U.S. senator from Texas, leapfrogged all of them, announcing his campaign just after midnight on Monday, with a tweet and embedded generic campaign video. He is cementing his status as first person in the 2016 presidential race on Monday, in a speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Cruz will run as the Obama-despising, hawkish, religious conservative candidate of a party already defined by its religious conservatism, enthusiasm for foreign entanglements, and opposition to Obama. His pitch to donors and voters will be that such a candidate can capture such a party's presidential nomination.

But the Republican Party, as it usually does, will try to pick a winner, not a martyr to conservative purity.

Calling a presidential nominating race a year (or less) ahead of time is a fool's game, and I'm not going to completely rule Cruz out. Freshmen senators with Harvard Law degrees have won the White House before (ahem), and as Texas Tribune editor in chief Evan Smith notes, Cruz's insignificant poll numbers don't mean much this early in the game:

See more

But by declaring his candidacy without all the usual pomp and circumnavigation — first on Twitter, then at a Southern Baptist college where Republicans typically go to pander to conservative Christian voters — Cruz is signaling that he knows his bid is something of a long-shot.

There's a good chance Cruz does think he has a real shot to win, but there's at least an equally good chance he's doing this because he can, because he wants to help steer the national Republican agenda, and because, as The Texas Tribune's Abby Livingston notes, "in the super PAC era, it's likely that somewhere, a millionaire or a billionaire will back his campaign."

Even with a deep-pocketed benefactor, "it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Ted Cruz becomes the Republican nominee," Dan Schnur, at the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, tells Bloomberg. "It's just as hard to imagine a scenario in which he does not pull the primary debate significantly to the right."

Cruz has to pretend like he is going to win, or nobody will take his candidacy seriously.

So as his role model, Cruz is going with Ronald Reagan. "It was 40 years ago at CPAC that President Reagan said the path to victory is not pale pastels but bold colors," he said from the CPAC stage in February. Reagan was also "despised" in Washington, he added, but he put together a winning coalition of social conservatives, free-market enthusiasts, and foreign policy hawks. "I am convinced 2016 is going to be an election very much like 1980."

Reagan, it should be noted, was a former popular California governor who'd almost unseated an incumbent Republican four years before winning the GOP nomination. Cruz has won exactly one election, in deep-red Texas, and he was born in Canada — yes, you should expect birth certificate jokes.

Cruz is a protest candidate, and what he's protesting is the Washington "establishment." He will refine his protest as the race takes shape, and if he does manage to maneuver into the protest candidate of choice — Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 — he may be a viable Republican contender in 2020, or even a vice presidential nominee.

Jumping into the race first means that he will start off by making a splash in the press. But history hasn't been kind to early entrants. "The only first announcers to secure nominations since the midpoint of the 20th century," note Bloomberg's Margaret Talev, Jonathan, Allen, and David Weigel, "were Democrats Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and George McGovern in 1972." Ted Cruz almost certainly doesn't want to be part of that club, and unluckily for him, he probably won't be.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.