It was in Iowa last summer, two-and-a-half years before the 2016 presidential caucuses, that conservatives first pitched me on President Ted Cruz. The first-term Texas senator was in the state to rally for the defunding of the Affordable Care Act. His venue was the annual gathering of the FAMiLY Leader, a social conservative coalition; its president, Bob Vander Plaats, happened to endorse the winners in the last two Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. The enthusiasm for a Cruz run filled the room like the sound from a Marshall stack.
“Before, there was never a mixture of the limited-government, fire-breathing prophet with a Christian conservative, moral-based guy,” said Jamie Johnson, a Republican Party activist who’d backed Santorum in 2012. “When the conservative base of the Republican Party has a David, to use a biblical analogy—when they have their David, it’s obvious who their David is—it doesn’t matter where the money is. Ted Cruz is the only guy who fits that bill.”
Johnson’s comment stuck with me because I heard so many versions of it, from so many Iowans. The conservative base of the Republican Party takes no responsibility for the party’s 2012 defeat. It takes no responsibility for the 2008 loss, either. In its telling, the base was too slow to pick its champion. Its vote was split, coalescing too late behind one candidate—Huckabee in 2008, Santorum in 2012. So the Republican establishment force-fed it two “electable” candidates named John McCain and Mitt Romney.
This is the ur-myth of the modern GOP; it will scare the base into organizing more adeptly than it’s ever done before. Since the rise of party primaries and binding caucuses, only twice—1964 and 1980—has the conservative base overcome the party “establishment.” Ronald Reagan was a two-time loser (he ran briefly in 1968 in addition to 1976) before he won; and when Barry Goldwater triumphed, only 16 states held true primaries. There’s no precedent for a true conservative insurgent taking the nomination in the modern age of drawn-out, expensive ballot contests.
But there are cracks in the dam. Mitt Romney, a runner-up in the 2008 contest, faced an incredibly weak 2012 field. That didn’t stop him from becoming the first Republican to lose the South Carolina primary on the way to nomination, losing “conservative” voters—two-thirds of that state’s electorate—by 21 points. It didn’t stop him from having to fight a month-long mop-up operation against Santorum, who won more states than Romney in the South and nearly won in the Midwest, where he was outspent nearly 5-to-1, even before PAC money was counted. The weakest insurgent candidate in memory actually won 11 state contests, four more than John McCain won in his still-celebrated 2000 run against George W. Bush.
Any Tea Partier reading those numbers should start brimming with optimism. Santorum surged late, raising barely $2 million before the Iowa caucuses, gasping for airtime against Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. Social conservatives want to step up their schedule for vetting candidates, as do lumpen Tea Party activists. In 2012, the pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund super PAC effectively put him in the game by running ads in Iowa; Winning Our Future did the same for Gingrich in South Carolina, where he won. Romney advisers would later complain that the super PACs drew out the primary by allowing candidates with minimal fundraising to stay in the race. A super PAC’s marginal benefit is far greater for the candidate who used to have to scrape for donations. A few wealthy donors could, if they chose, make the insurgent hypercompetitive with a more establishment-friendly type (say, Chris Christie) who knows the birthdays of all the GOP donors in the richest ZIP codes.
So, how does the Tea Party win the nomination? It copies, as best it can, the model Indiana conservatives used in 2012. Burned by 2010, when a messy Senate primary produced a moderate candidate, Indiana’s Tea Party organizations united under the banner of Hoosiers for A Conservative Senate. They cleared the boards for Richard Mourdock, who went on to obliterate Senator Richard Lugar in the primary (although he lost the general). In 2015 and 2016, the Tea Party would need to copy this as best it can in a rolling primary system, minimizing possible spoilers and locating a white knight. It might take until South Carolina or Florida, but if only one candidate is left by then—a Ted Cruz, a Rand Paul, a Scott Walker—he’d be in a stronger position than any insurgent since Ronald Reagan in 1976.
How does the establishment stymie this? It’s already begun to. At the 2012 convention in Tampa, Romney’s delegates and RNC members tweaked delegate-selection rules in order to bind delegates to primary and caucus votes and to nix punishments on states that went “winner take all” before April 1. This was done to prevent in 2016 a problem that nagged Romney: resilient Ron Paul delegates organizing in the low-attendance conventions that actually picked delegates in some states. The new rules require the insurgents to fight and win primaries over several months, something that could tax the enthusiasms of base activists and mega-donors—and something that could be thwarted by the independents and Democrats who can vote in open-primary states like New Hampshire and Michigan. If Hillary Clinton runs on the other side, and there’s no Democratic primary to speak of, the more moderate Republican candidate can organize non-Republicans to outpace the insurgents.
But does the Tea Party’s clout depend on winning the nomination? Can’t it run the party just as well by commandeering its agenda and platform? The Tea Party is better at co-opting RINOs (“Republicans in Name Only”) and demanding their fealty to a certain agenda. Romney and McCain both made moves to the right to shore up conservatives. Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate was the most visible example (this was before Ryan’s advocacy for immigration reform morphed him into a RINO). But more telling was Romney’s endorsement of the 2011 “cut, cap, balance” pledge.
During the height of that year’s debt limit crisis, Tea Party and conservative groups from FreedomWorks to the Club for Growth coalesced around a plan: Any deal to raise the debt limit—pure political poison—would need to cut that year’s spending by $110 billion, cap future spending at a decreasing percentage of GDP, and force through a Balanced Budget Amendment that would require supermajority votes for any future tax increases. Romney endorsed this. Other Republicans nodded at whatever Tea Party fiscal demands were necessary to stave off primary challenges.
That’s how the conservative base runs the party. If it gets a candidate through the primaries in 2016, it would be a greater triumph. If another candidate co-opts the movement, they’ll grumble but take it. Whatever happens, their agenda can triumph in the nomination process as candidates lurch to the right. If that agenda doesn’t win the general election, its authors will know whom to blame. Somebody else.