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, 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.
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:
About as far out from the 2012 race as we are from 2016, was at 3%
鈥?Evan Smith (@evanasmith)
But by declaring his candidacy without all the usual pomp and circumnavigation 鈥?first on Twitter, then at a Southern Baptist college where Republicans to conservative Christian voters 鈥?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 , "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, . "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," 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 鈥?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 鈥?Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 鈥?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," , "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.