It’s early 2011, and an unheard-of candidate for Senate is deciding to enter a race 22 months down the line to replace one of Texas’ most revered senators.
He has no money, no prospective sources of donors. He has no establishment credibility. He has chosen to battle perhaps the most establishment of the establishment — the state’s lieutenant governor.
Now, it’s early 2015, and a still relatively unheard-of candidate for president is deciding to enter a race 20 months down the line. He faces questions about whether he can raise a consistent amount of money. He has no establishment credibility. He has chosen to battle perhaps the most establishment of the establishment — a former governor whose brother and father have both been president of the United States.
His supporters and observers of Texas politics say it’d be a mistake, though, to count out Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) again. He faces long odds, and scoffs from the national media, about his candidacy for president, which he formally announced on Monday during a speech at Liberty University in Virginia.
But he is already following the same playbook as his 2012 campaign for U.S. Senate, when he pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in recent memory over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and quickly rose to become one of the leaders of the conservative movement. Can he repeat that performance on a national scale?
“Those same smart people were probably skeptical of his bid for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat he now holds!” Sean Theriault, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas, said of Cruz’s chances.
“In short, no one in the Republican Party, except perhaps Jim DeMint, is better at speaking the Tea Party message than Senator Cruz.”
Cruz undoubtedly faces many of the same hurdles this campaign. In an NBC/Marist College poll released earlier this month, just 40 percent of Republican voters said they could see themselves voting for Cruz, compared with 38 percent who said they could not. He does not poll well with voters outside the traditional GOP base, raising questions about whether voters hungry for a win in the general election will choose to nominate him.
And he has few friends in the Republican establishment or on Capitol Hill, as a result of his brash brand of politics. Which leads to another question: Can the grassroots sustain his campaign on a national scope? According to The Houston Chronicle, Cruz’s advisers hope he can raise $40 million to $50 million during the campaign, far less than the $100 million former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush anticipates to raise this month alone.
Matt Mackowiak remembers how Cruz came up in the 2012 campaign. He announced his candidacy in a conference call with conservative bloggers. He went to every single Tea Party-type event that he possibly could, quickly becoming the grassroots candidate. He required that each event conduct a straw poll — and he would end up winning most of them, forcing the media at large to take notice.
“I say this in a good way,” said Mackowiak, the Texas-based founder of Potomac Strategy Group. “He was able to manufacture grassroots momentum. It was real, but in a way it was manufactured as well.”
Mackowiak expects Cruz’s team will find ways to demonstrate the size and scope of his grassroots army this time around, hoping to build the same kind of momentum. The challenge is standing out in an already crowded field of not only Republican candidates, but conservative, Tea Party types — like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The key may lie in Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucus of the campaign. It’s no secret why his opening salvo came at Liberty University on Monday: According to the state’s 2012 “entrance poll,” 57 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers were evangelical Christians.
Cruz will aim to win there, or at least finish very high. By that point, it will become clear if conservative and evangelical voters have coalesced around a candidate like Walker, or if Cruz is able to use what observers call a strong grassroots-campaigning platform to sway them to his side.
“If he were to win Iowa, I think it would be very much a game-changer,” Mackowiak said.
“A big win in Iowa could propel him to the nomination,” added Theriault. “If the hard right candidates fall like flies and Cruz wins Iowa, he could have some longevity, especially if Bush has some competition from the ‘establishment’ wing of his party.”
“If Walker falters, it’s not impossible to imagine Cruz winning the Iowa caucus with strong support from evangelicals,” said Geoffrey Skelley, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Cruz’s endgame might even be the same as it was in 2012. Back then, he unexpectedly forced Dewhurst into a runoff, but he still finished 10 points behind him. Dewhurst poured in $25 million of his own cash to salvage his campaign, but to little avail. Cruz won the runoff by 14 points. His aim this time is to squeeze out the other conservative candidates — hopefully by March 1, or “Super Tuesday” — and essentially force a “runoff” with Bush for the nomination.
If he can do that, there’d be a path to shock the political world — and the country — again.
“He overcame huge financial disparities between he and the Lieutenant Governor,” Theriault said of 2012.
“In part, because of those disparities, he was able to attract much media attention. It was all the grassroots that propelled his campaign and forced the media and political operators to take his campaign seriously. I don’t think that narrative has changed for him for this run.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.