The Backlash Is Coming: Which Republican Will Capture It?

It was a tough week for conservatives in America. They saw the Supreme Court give decisive victories on issues they’ve fought against with the gay marriage and Obamacare rulings. And while no major Republican leaders came to the defense of the Confederate flag, plenty of conservatives in the South will see the quick abandonment of it as an attack on their heritage.

So to say that many rank-and-file conservative voters are in a state of shock after last week would be an understatement. Just a few presidential cycles ago, Republicans were using anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives to help defeat Democrats. Now, gay marriage is the law of the land. That’s a lot for many conservatives to wrap their head around, many of which may have never seen actual progress on the issue in their own personal social circles (and if they only watch Fox News, the quick advancement must be even more confusing).

Where do they go from here? While many Republican establishment figures and consultants are quietly sighing a breath of relief that the Court took these issues “off the table,” the conservative base of the party won’t wave the white flag so quickly. Rather, expect them to be more energized than ever, furious over the defeats and eager to back a candidate who will keep up the fight. The White House hopeful who best appeals to them may find themselves surging in the polls and pose a real threat to some of the current front-runners like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker.

Starting Line attended events for three of the Republican presidential candidates most likely to capture that energy, seeing what their reactions were in the hours and day after the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. Here’s how we guess they’ll fare in the weeks to come:

Bobby Jindal

“Look, it was a bad week for conservatives or just people who believe in the Constitution,” Jindal said in Des Moines when Starting Line asked him about conservatism being on the defensive this week. “We’ve had some setbacks recently, but it’s hard to think of a week where you have multiple cases this significant.”

Bobby Jindal speaks to press outside the Machine Shed Restaurant

Jindal strongly criticized the gay marriage decision with Iowa reporters just hours after the ruling was released, slamming the Supreme Court as “out of control” and making up it’s own laws. “Why don’t we save some money, and get rid of the Supreme Court?” he wondered, which he later made clear was simply a joke.

Still, he didn’t go as far as some other Republicans (see Cruz and Huckabee below) who suggested the decision was outright illegitimate. “We’re a nation of laws, and we have to follow the law,” he said of whether gay marriage ceremonies would go forward in Louisiana, even though he noted he strongly disagreed with it.

Jindal has been very slowly rising in the Republican field, even if he still ranks near the back in most polling. But you can feel him building some momentum at events in Iowa in how the crowd responds to him. He does best relating his personal religious experiences with evangelical crowds, and his background on these issues ought to position himself well to take advantage of the growing backlash.

Jindal chats with Iowans over brunch

“We’ve been talking about the impact of religious liberty for a while, and we’ve also stood up when the left tried to bully us,” Jindal said of why he stands out from other candidates like Cruz and Huckabee. “So in my state we passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2010 with a bipartisan vote.” He also pointed out how he signed an executive order on a marriage conscience act when the Legislature wouldn’t debate it.

Don’t be surprised if Jindal continues to improve his standing in the Republican primary race. He’s saying the right things the right wing voters want to hear, and the recent rulings are putting the issue spotlight on topics right in his wheelhouse. But he can also be a cautious, well-rehearsed speaker with a balanced tone. There’s frustration and energy among conservative voters right now, but there’s also anger. Jindal may not fully capture that last emotion, but another candidate most certainly will. Which leads us to…

Ted Cruz

In one of the most unique Iowa Caucus events this writer has ever seen, Cruz held a made-for-TV rally at Drake University on Saturday, complete with a very fancy backdrop, lighting effects, Hollywood trailer-like intro videos, rally signs and little American flags for everyone. Before a crowd of about 250, Cruz delivered an overly-bloated hour and twenty minute speech. Despite the run time, the crowd ate it up.

Ted Cruz stage
The impressive setup for Cruz

“When Republican presidential candidates are standing up and reading Barack Obama’s talking points, things have gone serious wrong!” Cruz told the crowd, lighting into Republicans who he said haven’t stood up for traditional marriage. “And for those who say the marriage decision yesterday is the law of the land, it is fundamentally illegitimate, it is wrong, it is not law, and it is not in the Constitution!”

The audience went crazy for his lines, standing and cheering dozens of times throughout the speech. And it wasn’t the typical kind of applause. This was different, a more visceral, wild, from-the-gut kind of reaction, like Cruz was allowing them to release pent-up anger over things the rest of society wouldn’t let them talk about. Cruz is clearly the most gifted orator in the presidential race, Republican or Democrat, and his talents on the stump get conservatives revved up like no one else.

Ted Cruz crowd
The crowd cheers for Cruz

“I think conservatives are going to be energized after this, and they’re going to be looking for somebody who’s going to go fight against Washington,” former Republican Secretary of State Matt Schultz said to Starting Line about his endorsement of Cruz. “Conservatives want somebody who’s going to stand up, and not cave to the establishment, and Ted Cruz is that candidate … He’s actually gone to Washington and fought Washington instead of becoming a part of it, and I think that’s what stands out.”

Cruz’s biggest reaction came when he announced he would propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution putting Supreme Court Justices up for national retention votes. While such a strategy certainly wouldn’t pass Congress or the 3/4 of states needed for ratification, it’s exactly the type of language a chunk of the Republican base wants to hear right now. And Cruz is gladly giving it to them. Right now he’s not just appealing to the Tea Party crowd, he’s reinvigorating it.

Donald Trump

To some voters attitude and personality matter a lot, and among those Republicans, Donald Trump is having a field day. A week after entering the race, Trump rocketed to 2nd place in national polls, largely based on his tough-talking persona.

Trump speaks to press before his speech
Trump speaks to press before his speech

“Trump is the only one who tells it like it is,” Trump said of himself on Saturday in Winterset, a sentiment that many attendees Starting Line spoke to agreed with. They love him because he’s a “straight-shooter,” because he talks much, much differently than any politician and because his confrontational style on many issues sounds more authentic to them.

For conservatives fed up with recent events, they might gravitate to a candidate giving the establishment front-runners so much hell. But Trump may have some limitations here. He clearly has only a few issues he’s really passionate about right now – immigration, beating other countries in trade deals, and the very general idea of “leadership” (often accusing other Republican candidates of “not having it”).

Trump compares ties while John Wayne looks on
Trump compares ties while John Wayne looks on

Trump spoke for about 40 minutes at the Madison County Republicans dinner in a rather rambling – though entertaining – speech, yet covered very few topics. He returned to his fight with Univision three different times (which I don’t think many people in the audience were familiar with), he beat up on Jeb Bush (“if you think about it, Jeb Bush gave us Justice Roberts”), he talked about immigration and trade deals (“I’ve won so much, I’ve really beaten the hell out of people”), and he talked about the polls – a lot.

“We just went through a horrendous week with the Supreme Court,” he said, but mostly used the Obamacare decision to attack Bush. He mentioned that the President’s healthcare law was nearly “dead,” but didn’t go into specifics like many other candidates do on the topic.

Trump heads up for his speech
Trump heads up for his speech

“On marriage equality, it’s a tough situation,” Trump hedged when asked at a press conference in Winterset, and completely avoided it in his speech. “I certainly would have preferred the states making their own decision.” He said he’s “evolving” on gay marriage in a 2013 interview, and this writer doubts he’s personally opposed to it. It would be surprising if he suddenly makes marriage one of his main talking points.

Immigration still riles up conservatives, but their attention right now is on other hot-button issues, gay marriage chief among them. Expect Trump to do well among the “fed-up” wing of the party, but he’ll likely miss out on bigger potential gains among conservatives as a whole due to his narrow policy focus.

Mike Huckabee

In what was the strongest and most incendiary reaction to the gay marriage ruling, Huckabee practically called for outright revolution in his response, saying, “I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.” He even encouraged county clerks to decline to issue marriage certificates “if they have a conscientious objection” in an interview with ABC News.

A well-known and familiar face to the evangelical crowd, Huckabee will likely continue to hold his share of this electorate. But he’s been beat by the “establishment” candidate before, when John McCain outpaced him in the long run of the 2008 primary. Frustrated conservatives will enjoy what he has to say, but may start to migrate to some of the newer candidates.

Advantage: Cruz

After seeing three of these four candidates in person shortly after the Supreme Court rulings, it seems clear that Ted Cruz is poised to harness the energy of the right’s current anger. No other candidate seems to have his finger on the pulse of conservatives’ frustrations and just how to address them like Cruz does. Jindal and Huckabee will still get their share, with Jindal possessing more of an opportunity to really move up. Trump could tap the anger, but simply doesn’t have the social and religious background to connect – he’s mostly on an economic message, when he’s on any policy message at all. Of course, Cruz has been doing this for a while, and has languished in the middle of the pack in most polls, despite garnering the most enthusiastic crowd responses. Now may finally be the time when Cruz takes center stage in the Republican primary and puts the fear of the base into the frontrunners.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 6/29/15

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