Sen. Ted Cruz is poised for launch. He has the money, the ground game, and Iowa in his pocket. Conservatives love him, and trust him; the party establishment will fall in line if the choice is between him and Donald Trump. Both Cruz and Trump are each (a bit self-servingly, of course) predicting that’s the choice Republican voters will have to make down the stretch. If it plays out that way, the pressure will be on Trump to halt Cruz’s momentum out of Iowa before the contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the rest of the Southern swing in early March.
Is there any message Trump could use to stop Cruz? There’s a pretty strong one, in fact. It’s one that undercuts Cruz’s central appeal as an “outsider” while reinforcing Trump’s central appeal as a right-wing populist. It portrays Cruz as another double-dealing politician and Trump as the guy who “tells it like it is,” so to speak, and it pits Cruz as a representative of the elite, coastal Republican class against which Trump’s campaign has sparked a working-class rebellion.
Trump can define Cruz as a Wall Street lackey, bought and paid-for by special interests, who will turn his back on the priorities of their overlapping base as soon as he’s in the Oval Office.
Cruz’s money doesn’t come from nowhere. According to a Yahoo Finance analysis in mid-November, 18.6 percent of the money backing Cruz—as in, campaign and super PAC contributions—comes from the financial industry. That was the fourth highest percentage of all presidential candidates, behind Gov. Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Sen. Lindsey Graham; in terms of hard dollars ($12.1 million), it was second only to Bush ($35.3 million.) Bush makes no bones about representing the will of the GOP donor class. Cruz does.
Cruz has raised some $38.6 million dollars in outside money, mostly through a set of four super PACs to which New York hedge fund manager Robert Mercer serves as ringleader. Major law firms, investments banks, and energy groups dominate his industry breakdown of his largesse. It is also worth acknowledging that Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is on leave from her job as a Goldman Sachs executive during her husband’s presidential campaign.
How has Cruz hoovered up all of this money, despite frequently bashing “billionaire Republican donors” who “look down on [Republican] voters as a bunch of ignorant hicks and rubes”? It may just be that Cruz has a different tone when addressing donors than he does with the God-fearing Heartland patriots of rhetorical lore. That would make him like most other representatives of the “political class,” but being separate and apart from those vipers is critical to Cruz’s image.
Consider the issue of gay marriage. Big Republican donors in New York love gay marriage. Cruz himself has pointed this out, most vividly in a Senate floor speech he delivered in September:
I can tell you when you sit down and talk with a New York billionaire Republican donor—and I have talked with quite a few New York billionaire Republican donors, California Republican donors, their questions start out as follows. First of all, you’ve got to come out for gay marriage, you need to be pro-choice, and you need to support amnesty. That’s where the Republican donors are. You wonder why Republicans won’t fight on any of these issues? Because the people writing the checks agree with the Democrats.
Thanks to some audio that Politico scooped up, we now have direct evidence of what Cruz says to “New York billionaire Republican donors”—or at least donors well-heeled enough pay four or five figures to attend a luncheon—regarding same-sex marriage. One question posed to Cruz at a December fundraiser, hosted by the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, went as follows: “So would you say it’s like a top-three priority for you—fighting gay marriage?”
“No,” Cruz said. “I would say defending the Constitution is a top priority. And that cuts across the whole spectrum—whether it’s defending [the] First Amendment, defending religious liberty.
“I also think the 10th Amendment of the Constitution cuts across a whole lot of issues and can bring people together,” he continued. “People of New York may well resolve the marriage question differently than the people of Florida or Texas or Ohio. … That’s why we have 50 states—to allow a diversity of views.” The donor who asked the question, apparently content to learn that stripping same-sex couples of their newfound constitutional right might be a top-five or top-10 concern but certainly not a top-three concern, told Cruz, “Thanks. Good luck.”
This is not a flip-flop. Cruz’s position on same-sex marriage throughout the campaign has been a constitutional amendment “to prevent the federal government or the courts from attacking or striking down state marriage laws,” an amendment he introduced in Congress last year. In other words: He would leave it to state legislatures, as he explained in his answer at the fundraiser.
But good God, the shift in tone! Cruz made a show of offering the most vociferous response to the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage this summer. In a piece for National Review, Cruz wrote that the decision “undermines not just the definition of marriage, but the very foundations of our representative form of government.” On Sean Hannity’s radio show, Cruz declared that the same-sex marriage decision, along with the previous day’s Affordable Care Act decision, marked “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” He reiterated his call for a constitutional amendment, and went further by calling for judicial retention elections as a check on the “lawlessness of the court.”
That was cleverly designed to appeal to evangelical voters of Iowa who both disapprove of same-sex marriage and, a few years ago, led a successful campaign to vote out the state Supreme Court justices who had legalized same-sex marriage there. Cruz now has Iowa evangelicals wrapped around his finger. Even though he didn’t confess to a changed position in the fundraiser tape, do you think those voters will appreciate hearing about how Cruz told wealthy New York socially liberal donors that reversing the right to same-sex marriage isn’t one of his top priorities? Cruz has worked doggedly to win the trust of evangelicals, so this alone won’t do him in. But Mike Huckabee, at least, considers these fighting words, and don’t be surprised to hear Rick Santorum or another lagging Iowa candidate jump into the fray next.
There’s also the case of Cruz’s shifting positions on legal immigration. For a while, Cruz was an ardent supporter of markedly increasing the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers, a policy which wealthy donors applaud. That, however, was before Trump dragged the debate into overtly nativist territory. Cruz’s immigration plan now calls for a six-month suspension of the H-1B program and to “halt any increases in legal immigration so long as American unemployment remains unacceptably high.”
Is this what his team is saying behind closed doors, though? In a meeting with Hispanic Republican leaders last week, Cruz campaign chairman Chad Sweet “repeatedly told the group Cruz wants to be the champion of legal immigration,” according to Republican immigration advocate Alfonso Aguilar, who was in the room. According to Aguilar, Sweet “said there’s no better friend than Ted Cruz to legal immigration.” This is the line that Cruz frequently used to describe his legal immigration platform, before he changed his position. Is he still using it in private, when the audience is right?
One of Trump’s most appealing traits to voters is that he cannot be bought, doesn’t need to raise money, and doesn’t need to curry favor in private with select interest groups. If he needed to court big-dollar donors, you wouldn’t hear him railing on so unreservedly against immigration or free trade or cuts to federal entitlement programs. As David Frum writes in a lengthy Atlantic piece this month, Trump has blown wide open the long-simmering feud between GOP elites, who typically control the party’s presidential nominating process, and GOP working-class voters, who have always fallen in line.
In Cruz, Trump has a foil who fits neatly into his narrative of the enemy career politician subservient to powerful interests. Cruz has done a good job keeping a lid on the lucrative big-dollar fundraising connections that might complicate his narrative as the consummate “outsider.” Expect Trump, a human bullhorn, to change that.