LYNCHBURG, Va. – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced early Monday on social media that he will seek the Republican nomination for president.
He will formally declare his candidacy later in the day at Liberty University, in one of the most socially conservative pockets of the country. In doing so, Texas' junior senator is shirking the traditional playbook of kicking off his campaign in his hometown or in a favored early primary state.
And that's no accident. In fact, that sort of positioning is exactly how Cruz got to this point — by dodging established political precedent to singularly court the most passionate conservative voters. Often that has meant turning conservatives against his party’s establishment.
“The most common thing you hear as you travel the country is, ‘Something happens to the people we send to Washington. They’re not listening to us,’” Cruz said a week ago in Manchester, N.H., placing the blame on both political parties.
The central question around Cruz’s political future is whether he has so isolated himself that he will struggle to find the structural and financial footing needed to win a primary or a general election. The coming presidential race will test Cruz’s own political theory that he can excite the conservative base enough to overwhelm his Republican rivals and the Democratic Party in a would-be general election campaign.
Cruz was not always a party outsider. He was groomed within the inner sanctums of his party and his country – Princeton University, Harvard Law School and George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Then came the 2012 Senate race.
Cruz initially angled to run for Texas attorney general in 2010. But when Republican Greg Abbott sought re-election, Cruz sacked that idea.
His next open-seat opportunity for statewide office came when Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison announced her retirement. Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst – an independently wealthy politician – had his eye on the seat and was such a fearsome candidate that every member of the House delegation and most other ambitious statewide officials passed on a run.
Cruz was a complete unknown whose most prominent political job, Texas solicitor general, was an appointed position. Most pundits and operatives considered him a political afterthought against Dewhurst.
Dewhurst had almost limitless funds, spending $34 million against Cruz in the Senate race — most of it from his personal fortune.
But there was no amount of money Dewhurst could spend to stop Cruz.
The political upstart had two things going for him. Most importantly, outside groups went in big for Cruz.
The Club for Growth was the most dominant — its super PAC alone spent $5.6 million to elect him to the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Other groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and a handful of others with “Tea Party” in their names also spent on his behalf.
The other factor in his favor was a late summer, low-turnout primary runoff. Cruz loyalists went to the polls in droves amid the July Texas heat to seal a runoff victory. On the night of Cruz's primary win over Dewhurst, political reporters were already calling him a future presidential candidate.
"The candidate who spends the most money doesn't always win," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. "In the Texas race, Cruz benefited from a clear contrast between the establishment and anti-establishment camps. It came down to a one-on-one battle."
But, Gonzales cautioned, a presidential campaign will not be the same.
"This presidential primary is very different," he added. "The field is crowded, and everyone is angling for the 'outsider' mantle."
In the Senate, Cruz frequently wreaked havoc on the Republican leadership’s best-laid plans.
His most famous move — a 21-hour filibuster on the Senate floor that included a late-night reading of Green Eggs & Ham on the Senate floor — made him a national political star in September 2013. As recently as last week, his admirers on the campaign trail praised him for that night.
A week after his filibuster ended, the government shutdown began. Many in his party still bitterly blame him for the political fallout the party bore during that October.
Some Republican operatives wonder if donors who wince at Cruz’s tactics — like the shutdown — will spend money on other candidates just to stop Cruz.
But in the super PAC era, it’s likely that somewhere, a millionaire or a billionaire will back his campaign.
And as divisive of a figure as Cruz is within his own party, it’s hard to find anyone who more forcefully invokes the GOP’s single most unifying symbol: Ronald Reagan.
Cruz’s strategy mirrors Reagan’s “three-legged stool” metaphor, which states that the Republican “stool” is held up by the "three legs" of social conservatism, a hawkish foreign policy and a free-market economic approach.
Many of Cruz’s potential Republican rivals are missing one of those legs. For instance, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is adored by evangelicals, but he often comes under fire by fiscal groups like the Club for Growth. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is a favorite among libertarians, but often unnerves the neoconservative wing of the GOP. And candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are criticized for the perception that they lack conservative purity.
It's hard to find any candidate as fiery as Cruz on the trail on all three issues. But on the flip side of the coin, there are no public guarantees his allies from 2012 will be there again this time.
The Club for Growth and like-minded groups may opt to back another rival, like Paul, whom they endorsed in 2010. The group also hosted Bush, Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at an organization meeting in Florida in February.
And Cruz could find Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum stealing his thunder among evangelical Christians.
"Iowa's Tea Party constituency is vocal, but relatively small, so Cruz's ceiling in Iowa will be dictated by how much vote share he can take from the host of candidates competing for the larger pool of evangelical caucus-goers," former Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn wrote in an email.
"Right now, that's an awfully congested lane that includes two past Iowa Caucus winners (Huckabee and Santorum), as well as Govs. Jindal, Perry and Walker," he added.
Regardless, any red-blooded politician would envy Cruz’s following. But it has come at a cost.
To his Republican rivals, his Democratic opponents and many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill, Cruz is rebellious, opportunistic and destructive. To his supporters, his motives come across as nothing short of sincere.
June Pinkham is an accountant who braved icy weather on a recent Sunday afternoon to hear Cruz speak in Barrington, N.H. She walked away from his speech impressed.
“I do believe that he does believe what he’s saying,” she said.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.