Today, Ted Cruz, the junior Republican senator from Texas, will become the first Republican to officially launch a presidential campaign for 2016. A little after midnight on Monday, the combative Tea Party conservative gleefully tweeted the news, kick-starting a race that other Republicans were hoping to put off for a few more weeks.
As the Houston Chronicle first reported Sunday, Cruz is set to follow this up with a formal announcement this morning at Liberty University, the world's largest Evangelical college, founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist leader and the godfather of the Christian Right. A bastion of Christian fundamentalism, and the birthplace of Falwell's Moral Majority, the school is the home base for the Republican Party's social conservative wing, and its Lynchburg, Virginia, campus is a requisite stop for anyone thinking about running for the GOP presidential nomination.
The fact that Cruz decided to launch his campaign at Liberty University—rather than somewhere in his home state—tells you the first thing you need to know about how he plans to run: from the far right, gathering support from conservative Christians and small-government Tea Partiers, the same groups that handed him a victory in his Senate race just two years ago. In a 2016 field that includes men like Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, Cruz faces intense competition for these voters; his decision to announce before any other candidate is a sign that he recognizes this weakness and is hoping to gain an early edge over his likely rivals.
Monday's announcement is particularly interesting because Cruz is probably the most divisive 2016 candidate, beloved by the right wing and loathed by liberals and moderates, including some in his own party. Born in Canada to a Cuban father and an American mother, Cruz graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School, and made his name in politics as the solicitor general of Texas before running for Senate in 2012.
As a staunch—some might say crazed—opponent of the Affordable Care Act, Cruz's most high-profile accomplishment to date was orchestrating the 2013 government shutdown as part of an effort to defund the healthcare law. While some of his soon-to-be rivals fell in line behind him, hoping to skim off some of the Tea Party love, virtually everyone else in the country still hates him for it, including many of his fellow Republicans, and anyone cashing a paycheck from the federal government. Cruz insists he's proud of his role in the shutdown, and the move did what it was intended to do, casting the Texas senator as an uncompromising conservative in an otherwise compromised GOP.
On all issues, Cruz occupies the far-right edge of Republican politics. He's rabidly pro-life, against any form of gun control, and vehemently opposes same-sex marriage, having recently reintroduced the State Marriage Defense Act, which would allow states "to preserve traditional marriage for their citizens." He's urged Congress to do anything to stop immigration reform, and has called net neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet." And he's an adamant climate-change denier, who last year sponsored a bill, the American Renaissance Energy Act, designed to hamstring the federal government's ability to regulate energy production within the United States.
The one area where Cruz does strike some kind of semblance of a middle ground is in foreign policy, positioning himself as a "third point on the triangle" between libertarian-leaning conservatives like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and the neocon wing of the GOP, led by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. As the National Journal's Tim Alberta points out, this has resulted in some inconsistency in Cruz's views. "In one breath he says, 'It is not the job of our military to occupy countries across the globe and try to turn them into Democratic utopias,'" Alberta wrote, "and in the next he calls the Islamic State 'the face of evil' and argues they must be defeated with overwhelming military force." All this is further complicated by Cruz's fervent devotion to Israel: He has a framed photo of Bibi Netanyahu posing with him and his wife hanging in his office and, as Alberta notes, has mentioned Israel literally thousands of times on the Senate floor.
As a candidate, though, Cruz is not complicated: he's going to leave so little room between his platform and the far right fringe, it will be a squeeze for anyone to fit in between. But while this strategy got him elected in Texas, it's an open question whether it will be can get him through a Republican presidential primary. Cruz hasn't been known for making friends, even among his own party, and if the Republican response to his shutdown was an indication, Cruz is likely to face a gauntlet of his own party members. Even if he does manage to unite the right, it's unlikely to change any one's mind about him in a general election.
Watch Cruz's speech live below:
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