As the early voting in the 2016 Republican presidential primary nears, a lot of attention is focused on the so-called establishment candidates, who are currently tearing each other apart on the stump and on the airwaves in an effort to consolidate voters comfortable with a traditional Republican approach to governance under a single banner.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have formed a circular firing squad and are blazing away at each other in the hope that whoever is left standing will be able to pull together enough support to challenge current frontrunner Donald Trump.
However, for all the attention the self-immolation of the GOP’s establishment wing is getting, less is being paid to an incipient fight among the “outsiders” in the race.
Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (and to a lesser extent Ben Carson) are appealing to the angry, disaffected element within the party that detests the federal government and is worried and frightened by a society that is rapidly changing, both culturally and demographically.
And just as the establishment Republicans have to identify a standard-bearer who can unify that faction’s votes, the “outsider” candidates will eventually have to do the same – preferably before the establishment gets itself organized behind a consensus pick.
Trump is currently the frontrunner in national polls, but Cruz is surging in Iowa and has cut deeply into Trump’s lead in New Hampshire. The two can afford to split a few of the early primaries without doing too much damage, but if each of them holds onto a large slice of GOP electorate hungry for an “outsider” in the White House and carries it deep into the primaries, they will run the risk of allowing an eventual establishment candidate – assuming one can separate himself from the pack – to gain momentum.
Cruz has so far been reluctant to attack Trump in public statements, but a clash is inevitable. On Tuesday night in Iowa, Trump renewed a two-pronged attack on the Texan’s religion and heritage that might signal that the gloves are finally coming off.
Aware that a large portion of the Republican electorate in Iowa is made up of evangelical Christians, Trump brought up Ted Cruz’s ancestry in what looked like an attempt to cast doubt on the depth of his attachment to the evangelical movement.
“To the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK? Just remember that, OK? Just remember,” Trump said.
It’s a line that Trump has used before, but not in weeks, and it deserves a little bit of unpacking.
Cruz, it should be said, isn’t from Cuba, though his father is. The senator from Texas was born in Canada to an American citizen mother, making him a citizen of the U.S. from birth. However, what Trump is doing here is reminding voters, who have heard him deriding Hispanic immigrants since the day he launched his campaign, that Cruz is both Hispanic and one generation removed from being an immigrant.
The hidden message here: Ted Cruz isn’t really one of us.
Also, if evangelicals don’t come out of Cuba, who does? Well, it’s either atheistic communists loyal to the Castro regime, or Roman Catholics. Trump, with his vow to prevent Muslims from entering the U.S., has already shown that he is not above using religious differences to fire up his supporters, and that’s the second prong of his attack on Cruz – planting doubt about his religious beliefs and suggesting that whatever they are, they aren’t the same as those of Iowa voters.
Again, the hidden message: Ted Cruz isn’t really one of us.
As the primaries get closer, it is inevitable that open warfare between Trump and Cruz will break out. Neither can count on poaching much support from an establishment candidate, so they will have to go after each other to boost their numbers.
Trump has signaled how he’ll go after Cruz. Now the question is how the Texan will respond.