Ted Cruz locks up Evangelical establishment, boxing out Rubio

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both know how to speak the Good Word on the campaign trail. One rails against the “atheist Taliban,” the other assures us that marriage equality isn’t actually settled. One builds a national prayer team for his campaign, the other reminds us that 9/11 was part of God’s plan.

Both believe strongly that all Americans deserve the freedom to practice Christianity in all aspects of their life — public and private.

Unfortunately for one of them, the gatekeepers to the Evangelical wing of the Republican Party decided that this year, in order to avoid a repeat of the fractured Evangelical vote that eased Mitt Romney’s path to the nomination in 2012, they would have to choose one candidate and choose them early. And it appears as though that candidate is Ted Cruz.

According to Tim Alberta of The National Review, a group of roughly fifty conservative leaders — a predominantly Evangelical coalition led by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins — held the latest in what have been a series of secret meetings in order to determine which candidate is best suited to represent their interests in opposition to the Republican establishment. After five rounds of balloting, with interludes for prayer and persuasion, Cruz emerged with the necessary 75 percent supermajority. As Alberta reported:

Ted Cruz, via DonkeyHotey / Flickr

Ted Cruz, via DonkeyHotey / Flickr

It didn’t take long for the participants to winnow down their list. They eliminated the weaker contenders: Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson among them. This facilitated the Cruz-Rubio duel many had been anticipating: Cruz, the Protestant purist with a pit bull’s demeanor, versus Rubio, the Catholic pragmatist with a choirboy’s countenance. Or, as one member framed it: “Cruz the Fighter versus Rubio the Communicator.”

The impact was felt immediately on the 2016 campaign. Three prominent participants — direct-mail pioneer and longtime activist Richard Viguerie, the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown, and The Family Leader’s Bob Vander Plaats – announced their support of Cruz within 72 hours of the meeting at the Sheraton.

Earlier today, Brown wrote a blog post/fundraising solicitation on the National Organization for Marriage’s website citing his organization’s endorsement as the reason behind Cruz’s 21 point surge and ten point lead in the most recent Des Moines Register poll.

As Alberta reports, Cruz was the early favorite to get the group’s nod, and secured his position by actively campaigning for the group’s support. When talking strategy, Cruz has repeatedly emphasized the GOP’s need to turn out millions of (white) Evangelical voters who stayed home rather than voting for weak-tea conservatives like John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012. In meetings with Evangelical leaders, he focused on the party’s need to unite behind one conservative candidate — a move that Alberta describes as a deliberate wink and nod to Perkins and the group he had assembled to do just that. So even as Rubio was emerging as the candidate the GOP establishment thought could bridge the gap between themselves and religious conservative on the right wing of the party, Cruz was working behind the scenes to eat their lunch.

But it isn’t just Cruz’s legwork that’s gotten him this basket of endorsements, which will be announced in the coming days, weeks and months. Having watched Cruz and Rubio make their pitches to Evangelical voters — pitches that Donald Trump simply isn’t capable of making — it makes sense for these Evangelical leaders to like Rubio and love Cruz on the merits. Rubio says the right words and takes the right positions, but Cruz picks the right battles and, perhaps as importantly, offends the right people — Republicans in Washington, in particular. Rubio looks and sounds like he’s reciting lines while Cruz looks and sounds like he’s delivering a sermon — perhaps because he is.

Rubio reminds me of the teenager who stops you on the sidewalk to ask if you’ve heard the good news. Ted Cruz reminds me of the preacher that sent him there.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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