clock menu more-arrow no yes

A group of influential social conservative leaders is planning to back Ted Cruz

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Tim Alberta from National Review has a great report about Ted Cruz winning the allegiance of a group of conservative factional leaders who met under the auspices of Family Research Council president Tony Perkins at a Sheraton hotel in Tysons Corner to decide on how to unite behind a single conservative candidate for the presidency. Read Alberta for the color, but the tl;dr is that once upon a time it looked like Jeb Bush would be a strong player, but as he faded in favor of Marco Rubio it came down to Rubio and Cruz, and even though there was some tough resistance to Cruz, he had the most backers from the get-go and eventually secured the supermajority.

This is the clearest sign of some institutional support for Cruz emerging, and potentially sets the stage for him to become the GOP establishment's preferred Stop Trump candidate, even though GOP congressional leaders can't stand him.

Cruz is consolidating support of social conservatives

So whose support has Cruz won? Alberta describes it as "a loose coalition of some 50 like-minded conservative leaders from around the country."

Looking at the names he mentions, I would say it's specifically social conservative leaders associated with causes that have become a bit unfashionable in today's political climate. There's Perkins, and Alberta also names Richard Viguerie, Brian Brown, Bob Vander Plaats, James Dobson, Ken Cuccinelli, Penny Nance, Jonathan Falwell, Ken Blackwell, Kelley Shackleford, Rick Scarborough, and Henry Jackson as involved in the group.

By contrast, Alberta reports that Phyllis Schlafly, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed all "rejected from the outset Perkins' plot to unite the movement."

The non-participation of Norquist, in particular, underscores the limits of this group, which does not seem to include many people focused on economic policy issues and is mostly composed of conservative leaders who see themselves — like Ted Cruz — as at odds with the party's formal leadership. In normal times, this would be the harbinger of a factional evangelical candidacy — something like the Mike Huckabee 2008 campaign or the Rick Santorum 2012 campaign — rather than a successful bid for the nomination. But the combination of establishment terror of Trump and a clearer party consensus against immigration reform than existed in 2008 may change the calculus this time around.

In addition, the 2016 campaign has introduced substantive disagreement over social issues into the Republican Party in a way that hasn't been the case in recent cycles. Neither Mitt Romney nor (especially) John McCain was a favorite of evangelicals, but both clearly endorsed conservative positions on marriage and abortion. By 2016, the GOP consensus on abortion is stronger than ever, but a meaningful divide has opened up between politicians who are willing to quietly drop the marriage issue and those like Cruz who are still pushing for a constitutional amendment to roll back same-sex marriage.

The power of the marriage dead-enders

Just 11 short years ago, opposition to granting equal marriage rights to same-sex couples was an important electioneering strategy for George W. Bush's reelection campaign. During the 2008 campaign, marriage equality was considered such a politically toxic cause that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama would embrace it during their hard-fought primary campaign for fear of rendering themselves unelectable in the general election.

But by 2015, equal marriage rights exist in all 50 states, and the cause of marriage equality commands majority support in the polls. Under the circumstances, Republican Party elites are eager to ditch the anti-gay cause. Marriage politics was supposed to be a vote getter that helped advance the GOP's economic agenda, not a drag on the party.

But though marriage equality is popular nationally, it remains unpopular with self-identified Republicans:

Pew

And with white evangelicals (and black ones, too, but that doesn't matter in a Republican primary):

Pew

Cruz's willingness to cast general election caution to the wind and align himself with the party base's now-unpopular stance on this issue could help him a lot in a primary. But it's also easy to imagine a world in which it doesn't. After all, no matter who wins the 2016 presidential election, there simply isn't going to be a federal constitutional amendment that bars same-sex marriage. By contrast, any Republican 2016 winner is likely to be in a position to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court with a justice who will be dramatically less sympathetic to abortion rights claims.

Under the circumstances, one could imagine a strong case that evangelical and social conservative leaders ought to be pragmatic and go along with the party leadership in dropping the marriage issue. Cruz's popularity with the Perkins group is a sign that many in social conservative politics are not yet prepared to make that tactical calculus.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.