Ted Cruz showed the power of strongly voiced conservatism among Republican voters, stunning poll leader Donald Trump and establishing himself as a formidable challenger for his party’s nomination.
The senator from Texas can’t call himself a front-runner, at least not yet. His tough conservative talk and religious fervor are not likely to play as well in next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
But Cruz proved to be a giant-killer, staggering Trump, the real estate mogul who had commanded much of the race’s attention and led polls as the caucuses began. Trump barely won second place Monday, unable to back up his relentless boasts that he’d sweep the caucuses. Instead, the man whose main claim to popular support is that he’s a winner, is now 0-1 in politics.
Cruz won the old-fashioned way with Republicans. He quoted the Bible, slammed Washington’s inert ways and vowed to closely follow the letter of the Constitution. His record opposing abortion and supporting gun rights was clear and consistent. Talk radio hosts loved him, and he organized Iowa like no one else.
The night’s other winner was Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., finishing a stronger-than-expected third, and the race now has potential to wind up a battle between two 40-something Cuban-American U. S. senators, Cruz and Rubio.
Cruz did what he had to do Monday, win in a state where more than 60 percent of the Republican voters were evangelicals. Rubio appeared to pick up chunks of Trump support, and is now well-positioned to be the GOP establishment’s long-sought alternative to Cruz and Trump.
Rubio remains far behind Trump in polling for next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. But with his strong showing Monday, he beat expectations, and history shows candidates who leave Iowa with momentum can surge quickly in a matter of days.
Rubio faces some strong, similar candidates in New Hampshire, notably Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor.
Trump led by 7 in the last Quinnipiac Iowa poll
Iowa caucusgoers also wanted a candidate who shared their values, and Cruz had a big edge among those voters.
Cruz is the third straight Christian right favorite to win the caucus, following 2012 winner Rick Santorum and 2008 winner Mike Huckabee. Huckabee tried again this time, finished far back and announced late Monday he would suspend his campaign.
Cruz has more staying power. He has a sizable treasury – $19 million on hand at the start of the year – and as a U.S. senator from Texas has a broader constituency.
The calendar, at least for the next month, is kind to Cruz. While he’s not expected to excel among more centrist, more secular New Hampshire voters a week from Tuesday, the next tests are full of the sort of evangelicals and hardcore conservatives who championed Cruz Monday.
South Carolina, where more than 60 percent of Republican voters are evangelicals, votes Feb. 20, followed by Nevada three days later, where religious Republicans dominate. Next up are 11 Southern and Midwestern states March 1 and 5 with huge blocs of Christian right voters.
Rubio, though, positioned himself to soar in the next round. Michigan votes March 8, followed by Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Florida and other states a week later. The religious right has less clout in those states, which have long been kinder to center-right Republicans.
Whether Trump can rebound is suddenly in question. Cruz appeals to the huge cadre of voters fed up with Washington and government business as usual – he was criticized by Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad.
Four in 10 Republican voters said they were angry with the government, and half said they were dissatisfied, according to network entrance polls.
“They want disruption in the system,” said Iowa pollster Ann Selzer.
Trump got the attention, but he didn’t do the granular things that fuel successful political campaigns, and it cost him. He staged big rallies rather engage in the living room to living room conversations that Iowans cherish. He gave rambling, often disjointed speeches at rallies, and walked away from the final debate. He was criticized for taking positions in the past such as supporting abortion rights or supporting Hillary Clinton that have long been considered ruinous for any Republican.
Cruz had his own problems with the party. He’s widely disliked among his Senate colleagues, and his Washington-bashing seemed misplaced for a Senate incumbent.
But his anti-government fervor, and his ability to articulate in plain terms his conservative principles, endeared him to fed-up voters. He laced his stump speeches with references to Christ and the Bible, and had the backing of the state’s most influential Christian right and conservative figures.
Voters are ready to take a risk with someone who’s an outsider Iowa pollster Ann Selzer
That gave Cruz a big advantage. “Evangelicals appreciate humility,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a Cruz supporter.
Darlene Glassner, a Madrid, Iowa, homemaker, felt that way. “Sen. Cruz is true to his values, to the Constitution and to God,” she said.
Cruz backers did have praise for Rubio, who entrance polls found got decent support from evangelicals as Cruz.
Iowa voters, though, questioned Rubio’s style and his stand on immigration. Some found him slick and smooth, lacking the blunt touch that they found engaging in Trump. Or they didn’t see Rubio as principled as Cruz.
Rubio’s immigration stance continues to haunt him. He was a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight in 2013 that pushed historic legislation through the Senate to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. It included a lengthy path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants. Conservative critics pounced, and Rubio backed away.
Rubio’s upside is his potential and his demeanor, as well as a growing roster of Republican officials falling in line behind him. He’s young (44), offers an upbeat speech and has some command of foreign policy. Cruz won in Iowa among those saying they were very conservative; Rubio topped him with moderates and those saying they were somewhat conservative and with those who sought electability.
Monday was Cruz’s night. New Hampshire is a state where those more moderate voters dominate, giving Rubio a big chance to position himself as Cruz’s main challenger.