LYNCHBURG, Virginia — Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on Monday became the first major candidate to officially announce a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, pledging to bring a hardline conservative approach to the campaign trail.
“I believe in you and the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America and that is why I am announcing that I am running for the president of the United States,” Cruz said to cheers.
Cruz delivered his speech at Liberty University to a packed stadium of students, who were required by the school to attend the regular convocation event. They nonetheless gave him a standing ovation as he took the stage, and he garnered plenty of applause throughout the talk. Students kept any snark to their phones, where they filled up anonymous message board app Yik Yak with mid-speech takes. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. introduced the candidate after the gathering was kicked off by a Christian rock performance.
The senator asked the students over and over again to “imagine” a world in which his agenda had been enacted, including the repeal of Obamacare, the dissolution of the Internal Revenue Service, and a flat tax that Americans pay at the same rate regardless of income — as well as a president who “finally, finally, finally secures the borders.”
The symbolism of the venue was hard to miss. Liberty University is an evangelical hub founded by the late Jerry Falwell Sr., the combative and politically active conservative preacher that John McCain famously called an “agent of intolerance” in his 2000 presidential run. (The two later reconciled for his 2008 race.) By holding his announcement there, Cruz sent a clear signal that he intended to push hard for social conservative votes.
“Today, roughly half of born again Christians aren’t voting, they’re staying home,” Cruz said in his remarks. “Imagine instead, millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
His remarks contained plenty of red meat for the evangelical crowd, including lines trumpeting his opposition to abortion and gay marriage and his support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“There wasn’t a single thing I disagreed with in his speech,” Liberty freshman Chandler James told msnbc. “I definitely feel America is headed in the wrong direction now and needs a change.”
Pacing across the center stage with a headset like a megachurch preacher, Cruz’s speech was as much religious testimony as it was campaign speech. He opened by recounting his biography as the son of a Cuban immigrant and an American mother who was the first in her family to go the college. In the most dramatic moment, he recounted how his father abandoned a 3-year old Cruz and his mother before a conversion to Christianity prompted him to return home.
“Were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ … I would have been raised by a single mother,” Cruz said. Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, is an evangelical pastor who has become a fixture at conservative events, where he’s developed a reputation for delivering even more hardline political rhetoric than his son.
It will be a tough task winning social conservative votes in a race that could feature candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, both of whom performed strongly with the same bloc in their respective presidential runs. Even in Cruz’s home state of Texas, he could face competition from former Gov. Rick Perry, who is looking at another run after a weak showing in 2012.
Cruz’s appeal is not limited to the religious right, however. In many ways, he personifies the tea party, a populist conservative movement that has clashed with Republican leaders as often as with Democrats in demanding the GOP move further right. In his 2012 Senate race, he defeated an establishment-favored rival, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in the primaries en route to an easy general election victory. Once in the Senate, he quickly became a household name by whipping up activists behind a series of legislative crusades to hold must-pass items or otherwise routine confirmations hostage.
These standoffs, like his recent push to block Obama’s executive action on immigration, usually have ended with GOP leaders and Democrats going around him. But in 2013, Cruz served as the prime architect of an effort to block Obamacare’s implementation by tying it to a bill funding the federal government. Conservative lawmakers rallied behind his position, Democrats refused to accept the measures, and the government shut down. At one point, Cruz delivered a 21-hour speech ahead of a vote on a stopgap funding bill. Republican leaders eventually capitulated after a backlash from voters in public polls, but recovered in time for the midterm elections.
“Imagine in 2017, a new president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare,” Cruz said in his speech.
In a statement, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz derided Cruz for his role in the shutdown.
“Ted Cruz clearly could not understand that shutting down the government, so he could deny millions of Americans health care — and costing the economy $24 billion in the process — was not a fight worth having,” she said. “He was then willing to do it over again and threaten our national security in the process. His reckless approach to governing would make life worse, not better for Americans and he isn’t the type of fighter that America’s middle class families need.”
Cruz’s policy of maximum opposition has earned him a loyal following on the right, but also alienated large portions of the GOP — and many of his Senate colleagues — who accuse him of dividing the party over unwinnable fights in order to bolster his own ambitions. Some 38% of Republican voters in a March NBC News/WSJ poll said they could not see themselves supporting Cruz, a number on par with Jeb Bush (42%) but well higher than rivals such as Scott Walker (17%) and Marco Rubio (26%). He has yet to make an impact in national or state polls of GOP voters, but the race is wide open with the “front-runners” Bush and Walker regularly failing to break 20%.
The senator’s path to the nomination rests on uniting tea party and grassroots conservative opposition to Bush, the establishment front-runner. It’s a feat virtually the entire field will be trying to pull off. One particularly tough competitor could be fellow Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian who is also popular in tea party circles and is set to announce his own run on April 7. Several students at the event wore “Stand with Rand” t-shirts, a reminder of Cruz’s challenge moving forward.