Cruz, Paul: Insiders Running in an Outsiders' Game
With political neophytes collecting half of the support from Republican Party primary voters and anti-Washington sentiments as palpable as a punch, one might think U.S. senators running for president would be walking in and out of the Capitol incognito.
But they are hardly hiding out. Instead, as Congress returned to Washington this week after a long August recess, these federally employed presidential candidates tried to flip the script, embracing their day jobs as positions of advantage, not liability.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a notorious thorn in the side of GOP leadership, led a rally on the Capitol grounds against the Obama administration’s Iran deal and invited masterful showman and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump to get in on the action, while House Speaker John Boehner struggled to corral his conference around a path forward on the bill.
And on Thursday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul joined another Capitol rally, albeit much smaller, to protest funding for Planned Parenthood, which will soon be up for a vote.
And, though not as rebellious, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are also using their positions on key committees to show their credentials on foreign policy, a subject playing an outsized role this election cycle.
“These are things that are front and center in the minds of Republican voters,” says GOP strategist and former congressional aide Doug Heye. “Even in an anti-Washington environment, it’s about being able to use that position to talk about things GOP primary voters care about.”
The rise of political outsiders Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and, to some extent, Carly Fiorina, puts pressure on the rest of the field who serve or have served in political office. But there is a special burden on those who currently serve in Washington, a place tantamount to dysfunction, inaction, and heartbreak as far as GOP primary voters are concerned. Voters are frustrated with the political system and also their own party, and they often express disappointment that a Republican-led Congress hasn’t been able to do much of what it said it would.
The pressure is particularly strong on Cruz and Paul, who, unlike their Senate colleagues, have campaigned as outsiders to their own party, even from within the confines of the Capitol. Cruz has led efforts to shut down the government over Obamacare, and Paul has led fights over government surveillance programs. Both refuse to endorse a government-funding bill that includes money for Planned Parenthood, which could risk a government shutdown.
The fight over the Iran nuclear deal, plus upcoming battles over Planned Parenthood and funding the federal government, set a stage for Cruz and Paul to try to show they can disrupt Washington from the inside. They will use that stage to contrast themselves with Trump and the other outsiders to make the case to primary voters that they are already tested—that while candidates talk about changing the system, they are already there shaking it.
“He’s trying to be salt and light as a member of Congress, trying to get the rest of those in Congress to understand that people are not impressed with status quo politics coming out of Washington,” Sarah Palin described Rand Paul to RCP at his rally outside the Capitol. “He’s an outsider in a very good and healthy way. People have, certainly I have a lot of respect for him for his courage in going rogue.”
Paul, who came to office in the Tea Party wave of 2010, has positioned himself as a party outsider. His libertarian philosophy also puts him at odds with the GOP over foreign policy, but he has been endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his Kentucky colleague. The two agreed to support each other during McConnell’s re-election campaign last year, when the senior senator needed conservative support. Paul was also successful in getting Kentucky law changed so that he could run for re-election and president simultaneously, a sign he’d stay in Washington.
“I think he needs to show that he is anti-establishment and that he’s not a creature of Washington. He happens to be somebody who’s a little more quiet than other people and maybe less showy, so that kind of hurts him right now,” says Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, who is supporting Paul and chairing his Western campaign. “It is resonating with some people, so now the question is to multiply. You have to multiply that and show that you are the credible alternative to these people that are now at the forefront of the polls.”
While Paul has attacked Trump and criticized Carson for his lack of experience, Cruz has stayed quiet on that front, hoping to inherit the support for the outsiders. The freshman senator came to office in 2012 by defeating a GOP establishment-backed candidate and has proved to be a rebel in the upper chamber ever since. Still, Cruz has been overshadowed by the real outsiders, and is looking to this session of Congress to prove his credibility.
“The issues that are coming up largely favor Cruz getting attention with issues that are important to the base,” says his campaign spokesman, Rick Tyler. While voters favor Trump and Carson, “Cruz is still in that mix, because people who know him believe he is anti-establishment, not one of the politicians who goes to Washington to go along to get along.”
The problem for party leaders is that for Cruz, a message vote is not sufficient. His campaign rests on twisting leadership’s arm until it cries uncle—and putting the blame for any negative consequences on the Democrats.
“People are not just buying the party line on taking meaningless votes just to say we tried,” says Tyler. “They are not going to cheer; they are going to say how did you leverage that vote?”
One example of leveraging a tough vote came earlier this week, when Cruz hosted his rally with Trump at the same time the Senate began debating a resolution disapproving of the Iran nuclear agreement. There were already enough Democratic votes for the deal to survive congressional review when the rally took place – and Democrats successfully blocked disapproval Thursday afternoon – but that didn’t slow Cruz railing against the agreement. And while nearly all GOP candidates have said they would tear the deal up on their first day in office – something Cruz said he would do during the rally – he and his fellow senators are the only candidates who can say they voted to block the agreement.
On Planned Parenthood, Republicans have been energized by a series of videos showing the organization discussing the procurement of fetal tissue, possibly for profit, which would be illegal (Planned Parenthood has denied any illegal activity and said the videos were misleadingly edited). Paul and Cruz are two of the leading voices in the Senate calling for revoking the nearly $500 million in federal funding the organization receives annually, something the vast majority of Republicans endorse.
Both candidates have also advocated attaching the issue to a continuing resolution to fund the government, which must pass prior to the end of September to avoid a government shutdown.
Other Republicans in the Capitol don’t support that strategy, wary of being blamed for shutting down the government for the second time in three years. The issue has stoked some of the conservative-versus-leadership dynamic on Capitol Hill, with Cruz, Paul and a number of House conservatives refusing to back any government funding bill that includes money for Planned Parenthood, but Republican leadership promising no more government shutdowns.
That battle is likely to take up much of the remainder of September for lawmakers. Cruz and Paul won’t make it easy. And that’s exactly the point. The challenge will be getting results, and proving they’re more than just pebbles in the shoes of the establishment. Graham, who is well behind his fellow senators in the polls, brushed off the strategy of his colleagues/opponents, saying he also wants to defund Planned Parenthood, but won’t risk a shutdown over it. Forcing the debate through a showdown, he said, is part of Cruz and Paul’s DNA.
“I think this is consistent with their beliefs as senators,” Graham said. “I think they'd be doing this as senators even if they weren't running” for president.