Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the Saturday edition of Politico Magazine. We reprint in part here.
Ted Cruz’s aggressive pursuit of the evangelical vote began with a deliberate choice of venue for his presidential announcement two weeks ago: Liberty University, which bills itself as the largest Christian university in the world.
The Texas Republican senator’s strategic play for Christian conservatives comes into even sharper focus this weekend as he rolls out the first television ad of the 2016 race. Titled “Blessing,” the commercial is aimed directly at evangelical and social conservative voters in early voting states, timed for Easter weekend and slated to air during popular Christian-themed programming.
It’s an exercise in narrowcasting that telegraphs exactly how Cruz intends to win the GOP nomination against better-funded and better-known rivals. His advisers say the Liberty University backdrop, the TV ads and even his recent two-day tour of Iowa are all part of a detailed blueprint designed to tap into the power of two distinct GOP wings — evangelicals and the tea party movement.
With establishment voters breaking toward former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio,and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — and libertarian-oriented conservatives likely to go for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — the Cruz team believes the Texas Republican must flat-out win the tea party set and finish either first or second among Christian conservatives, a bloc that dominates the GOP base in Iowa and South Carolina.
“I don’t think he could have had a better strategy, all the way from his launch to his swing through Iowa,“said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative leader in Iowa. “He’s had a strong announcement, and he’s going to be a strong candidate.”
He could face competition, however, from several proven vote-getters among social conservatives — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the last two winners of the Iowa GOP caucuses —or from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“It’s a crowded field,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a prominent Washington, D.C.-based conservative group. “There are several candidates who will be competing for the same base of support.”
A 44-year-old born-again Baptist and the son of a preacher, Cruz told advisers early on of his intent to pursue the evangelical vote as part of a plan to break through in a crowded field. In February, Cruz gave the green-light to begin planning for the official announcement. After considering several possible venues, the Cruz team settled on the Lynchburg, Virginia, university that was founded in 1971 by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
The location was an an unorthodox choice since most presidential candidates typically hold their announcement events either in their home states or in early voting states. But the campus was rich with religious symbolism, and it gave Cruz a direct pipeline to the voters he wanted to reach.
“The culture of the Cruz campaign, from the candidate to the grassroots activists, is to do things differently,” said Jason Miller, a Cruz adviser.