Tea Party champion and conservative firebrand Ted Cruz may be ready to embrace his libertarian side – and he may need to, if he hopes to find a path from Iowa to the White House.
As it turns out, the death of the Liberty Movement in Iowa may have been greatly exaggerated. While an establishment resurgence in 2014 spearheaded by Governor Terry Branstad succeeded in purging the Ron Paul element from the leadership of the Republican Party of Iowa, members of the state’s robust and often-boisterous Liberty Movement are turning their attention to greater things – namely, the 2016 presidential cycle.
Still reveling in the unexpected victory of libertarian-leaning Congressman Rod Blum in what had been a heavily Democratic eastern Iowa district, the Liberty contingent is starting to have conversations about how much effort and energy should be poured into a presidential race that – for the first time in a decade – will not feature Rep. Ron Paul.
Paul, who retired from Congress in 2013 but continues to make his presence on the political landscape felt through his new network, will presumably pass his organizational structure and much of his rabid base of support on to his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky; but many folks in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa think it may be a tougher handoff than many would surmise.
Heather Stancil, Co-Chair of the Madison County GOP and a Ron Paul supporter in 2012, still has some reservations about a Rand Paul candidacy. “Rand seems too comfortable with those who compromise their principles,” said Stancil, echoing widespread concern over the younger Paul’s endorsement of politicians that some see as hostile to the conservative base. Kara Hadley, a central Iowa activist who identifies closely with the liberty wing of the party, is also concerned with some of Paul’s associations. “Rand supported Mitch McConnell, and I think that’s crazy,” said Hadley. “I think that Rand’s trying to play the game, and I know that a lot of people are just tired of the game.” She also feels that Rand is not working to lock down support from the conservatarian coalition that his father helped spawn within the Republican Party, but is “taking his father’s legacy for granted.”
With the apparent reluctance of many libertarian voters to “stand with Rand”, one would think that other 2016 hopefuls would be quick to court members of the Liberty Movement, 25,000 of whom helped propel Ron Paul to a close third-place finish in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. But that, too, may be a tall order for many candidates.
For as much as figures like Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, and others have helped mainstream the Ron Paul revolution, there remains some simmering resentment between the frequently-warring factions of the Iowa GOP – much of which is still directed at young libertarians who turned the party structure upside-down in 2012. Potential 2016 contenders will have to weigh the benefit of wooing liberty voters, against the cost of an association that many prominent Iowa Republicans – including Governor Branstad and Rep. Steve King – find troublesome.
Compounding this risk is the fact that Ron Paul Republicans nationwide have earned a reputation as hard-line, skeptical, and often combative – though also intensely loyal to those they see as representing their ideals. Iowa Sen. Jason Schultz, a 2012 Ron Paul backer, acknowledges that, though it’s still too early for people to take sides, the Liberty Movement is paying attention to the rapidly-expanding 2016 field. “Liberty folks are better informed, better engaged, and more mature political activists, in my experience, and I think they’re watching”, said Schultz.
In other words, it’s a hard crowd to sell.
If recent actions are any indicator, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – a Tea Party conservative with libertarian leanings – is out to prove that he’s up to the challenge. Cruz, whose Senate candidacy was endorsed by Ron Paul, has been working to make inroads with the largely-overlooked Liberty constituency in Iowa.
Last August, Cruz sat down with a handful of influential conservatarian activists in Ames to test the presidential waters. He fielded a wide variety of policy and strategy questions, but broke stride during a response on government spending to praise Paul and his followers, while taking a swipe at the suppression of Ron Paul delegates at the Republican National Convention in 2012. “Ron Paul is someone I admire and respect, I think he was a powerful voice for liberty – still is. And I think he energized an army of activists across this country,” said Cruz. “One of the stupidest things Republicans did in 2012, was try to kick the Ron Paul people in the teeth. It doesn’t make any sense if you want people to be energized and engaged, to go after them and treat them as the enemy.”
Cruz has also taken the time to campaign with liberty candidates in Iowa, and his Jobs, Growth, and Freedom Fund recently made a major contribution to conservatarian state PAC Liberty Iowa – tied, in fact, for the Fund’s largest contribution to any person or group nationwide. Cruz has also reached out to liberty leaders in the state to set up meetings later this month when he travels to Des Moines for the Iowa Freedom Summit.
These recent moves, along with his dedication to hard-right policies in Washington, have already started to catch the eye of some of Iowa’s liberty activists. Schultz, who calls Cruz a “rising star” in the party, started paying attention to the Texas Senator during Cruz’s controversial not-quite-a-filibuster in 2013. He was impressed with what he saw. “It gave hope and energy to the base, that somebody was speaking for them,” says Schultz of the 21-hour floor speech. Other liberty activists registered a connection with Cruz based upon his opposition to Obamacare, Common Core, and Net Neutrality legislation. They are also supportive of his habitual opposition to increasing the size and scope of government, campaigns for which Team Cruz often utilizes trendy hashtag #makeDClisten.
Adil Khan, Executive Director of Liberty Iowa, thinks that Cruz’s role in the government shutdown may actually help him woo liberty activists, whose penchant for controversy and fierce opposition to government growth are becoming fashionable among millennial conservatives. He believes there could be interest in a Cruz candidacy within the Liberty Movement, while acknowledging the fact that Cruz will not start out with the immediate advantages of his Senate counterpart, Rand Paul. “Cruz has an uphill battle because he doesn’t inherit Ron Paul’s base automatically, he has to fight for each and every member,” said Khan. “But I think there are a lot of principled stances he’s taken…that a lot of people admire. That’s what they used to see in Ron – taking those principled, hard stances and not just backing the establishment every time.”
Others are more impressed with Cruz’s personal qualities. Hadley recalls, “I’ve seen the little things that he’s done, where he’s spoken and then gone around and thanked the staff that waited on the tables, people like him just don’t go and do that. That’s a huge quality.”
Not everyone, though, is sold on the Texas firebrand’s style. Former GOP State Central Committee member Tony Krebsbach, who manned the Rand Paul table at last year’s Family Leadership Summit in Ames, thinks that Cruz might struggle to appeal to some libertarians because of his tendency to cater more to mainline conservatives with his rhetoric. With regard to policy, he sees Rand as being the last stop for the traditionally-purist Liberty Movement. “The reasons that a lot of Ron Paul people don’t support Rand, would be the same reasons I think they would have a hard time supporting Ted Cruz,” said Krebsbach. While acknowledging that Cruz would be his top candidate if Paul were not likely to run, Krebsbach finds Cruz’s style to be overly-abrasive, and questions whether such a style can appeal to Democrats and Independents who might otherwise be open to libertarian principles and policies.
Others have similar concerns, worrying that the government shutdown, while inspiring the conservative base, might not have been effective at expanding that base by enticing independent voters into the GOP – something they see as a very positive component of Rand Paul’s electoral strategy. Some activists are also concerned that Cruz’s junior status – he is still serving his first term in the Senate – could dampen his appeal to some liberty voters who prefer a longer track record with which to vet candidates.
But one thing is for sure, those searching for distinctions between the two conservatarian champions will have the opportunity to find out more, as Cruz and Paul are certain to be a frequent presence in Iowa between now and the time each decides on a presidential run. Those in Ron Paul’s Liberty Movement will, for the first time, face a choice with regard to the White House – and they plan to do their homework on Cruz.
“It will be interesting to find out what happens when Cruz comes to Iowa and some of the hard questions start coming out like, ‘how involved will government get in marriage?’ and ‘how many bases are we going to withdraw from overseas?’ Those are questions that contrast Rand from a lot of candidates, so to find out where Cruz will come out on these, I think that’s going to come out in 2016,” concludes Khan. “It will be interesting to hear the difference in rhetoric, but in the end, when it comes to principle, when it comes down to the core votes, I don’t think there’s that much difference between the two.”