Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is emerging as the candidate of the conservative Christian wing of the Republican Party. The big question now is whether he can use the benefits of that mantle without being limited by it as past champions of the GOP's evangelical bloc have been.
On Thursday, Cruz was endorsed by Bob Vander Plaats, an influential conservative activist in Iowa who backed previous Hawkeye State winners Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012). Vander Plaats runs a social conservative organization in Iowa called The Family Leader and a number of the candidates had attended events hosted by The Family Leader throughout this year, hoping to gain Vander Plaats' backing.
The National Organization for Marriage, a conservative group that strongly opposes same-sex unions, announced its endorsement of Cruz a day earlier. And many national polls and those in the early states show that Cruz is surging among voters who describe themselves as evangelicals and "born-again" Christians.
For now at least, Cruz has made those gains directly at the expense of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has been dogged over the last month about questions about his lack of policy knowledge. Polls released this week by CNN and Monmouth University showed the same trend: Cruz made double-digit gains in support among evangelicals, while Carson sustained double-digit losses compared to surveys conducted in late October.
But even in the deeply-conservative Iowa GOP electorate, polls show Donald Trump, who is not overtly religious and rarely speaks about issues like abortion and gay marriage, commanding at least 20 percent of the evangelical vote.
Endorsements and active support of Cruz by the GOP's leading evangelical activists could help move religious voters away from Trump. And if Trump struggles with evangelicals who favor Cruz, the mogul will have trouble not only in Iowa but also many states in the South where a majority of Republican voters are evangelical Christians.
Alternatively, Trump, even while not talking about abortion and gay marriage, may have unique appeal for conservative Christians, who tend to be concerned about illegal immigration and the role of Islam in America, two of Trump's signature issues.
"There is a real danger that conservatives will split the vote, allowing someone like Donald Trump to emerge from the crowded field, which would be disastrous. Sen. Cruz has run the best campaign thus far, racking up endorsements and financial resources and climbing in the polls. We believe he has the best chance of uniting conservatives and going on to win the nomination," NOM president Brian Brown said in endorsing Cruz.
In past campaigns, such as Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012, winning the faithful has come at a cost. Running as the candidate most opposed to abortion and gay marriage, Santorum and Huckabee struggled to win more moderate voters and Republicans who consider themselves "somewhat conservative." That doomed their candidacies.
Polls right now show Cruz with some of those same problems. There is a huge gap between his strong support of among evangelicals and Tea Party Republicans, compared to his meager backing among moderate and somewhat conservative Republicans. In the CNN survey, Cruz was effectively tried with Trump among evangelicals in Iowa, but trailed the mogul by 26 points among moderate Republicans.
Cruz though is a unique kind of evangelical candidate. Unlike Santorum and Huckabee in past years, Cruz has been a very strong fundraiser, bringing in more than any Republican candidate other than Carson in the first nine months of the campaign. And the advent of super-PAC's in this cycle are a huge advantage for Cruz, who has a bloc of millionaire donors who have contributed about $38 million to a coalition of outside groups supporting him.
Traditionally, the evangelical candidate has lost in part because his more moderate rival had more money.
And Cruz has two other potential advantages in this Republican field, compared to past candidates who were embraced by the evangelical and social conservative wing of the party. Huckabee and Santorum espoused a kind of big-government Christian conservatism. Huckabee had supported some tax increases as governor of Arkansas, Santorum as a senator had voted for big federal programs like the No Child Left Behind Act.
Cruz has a deeply conservative record on nearly every issue, raising the potential he can also win Tea Party Republicans who are not as devout. And at least in the early stages of the race, the vote of more moderate Republicans are being split between Trump, ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, all of whom are running fairly active campaigns with some signs of support.
The evangelical wing of the GOP has much less competition. Huckabee and Santorum, despite winning in Iowa in the past, have been polling so low they were excluded from the main stage at the last presidential debate. Vander Plaats opted to bypass both men, whom he had endorsed in the past, to embrace Cruz.
And Carson is running a very non-traditional campaign and his plunge in the polls may continue.
"This race is starting to consolidate," said Iowa congressman Steve King, one of the most conservative members of Congress and a Cruz backer. "The evangelicals, the social conservatives, the conservatives will be behind one candidate early."
Another potential advantage is that the Republican Party may have shifted to the right over the last four years. A candidate like Rubio, who backed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, may be unable to win a majority of Republicans in many states.
Cruz and his campaign have openly discussed their strategy: do well in Iowa and South Carolina, become the champion of the most conservative and evangelical Republicans and then try to win the nomination through Southern states like Texas.
The Iowa part, at least for now, is working. What's not clear is if Cruz can build on that. He has a record that could make more moderate Republicans very wary of him. Cruz lead a government shutdown in 2013, is strongly disliked by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington and at times uses Trump-like extreme rhetoric.
"The overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats," he said last week, a claim the fact-checking website PolitiFact dubbed "mostly false" and seemed a kind of dog whistle aimed at conservative voters wary of crime by African-Americans.
Cruz was endorsed by the National Organization for Marriage in part because he was one of only three candidates (Carson and Santorum are the others) to sign NOM's pledge to strongly oppose same-sex marriage as president. The pledge had five planks, including requiring candidates to support a constitutional amendment that would allow individual states to ban same-sex marriage, work to overturn this year's Supreme Court ruling that invalidated gay marriage bans and reverse any Obama executive orders that have recognized same-sex couples.
"The sort of Republicans who say they want to win first actually like a different type of Republican than the highly charged Cruz," wrote Henry Olsen of the Ethics Public Policy Center in a recent piece, explaining why he felt Cruz would ultimately prove too conservative for GOP voters.
Olsen, author of a book that will be released next year called "The Four Faces of the Republican Party," added, "These are the voters who either don't like highly charged conservatism on principle (think the moderates) or they are the sort of conservatives who favor Mitch McConnell or John Boehner."