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Shutdown’s founding fathers rally their base (or don’t)

Ted Cruz has a message for you doubters: Republicans are winning.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Ted Cruz has a message for you doubters: Republicans are winning.

Sen. Ted Cruz pauses while speaking at the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, in Washington. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Sure, the shutdown may be pushing Republicans to record low approval ratings. And sure, Republican lawmakers are engulfed in an ugly civil war as they try and find a way out. And sure, Obamacare’s popularity appears to be  undiminished by the whole exercise. But, Ted Cruz has a message for you doubters: Republicans are winning.

“The Democrats are feeling the heat!” Cruz told the crowd at the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of religious conservative activists. 

By Cruz’s account, the Obamacare standoff as a fight whose life-or-death importance was matched only by its smashing success. The closest he came to acknowledging complaints the strategy might be going off the rails was when he warned the audience not to listen to the haters.

“The greatest trick the left has ever played is to convince conservatives we cannot win,” he said.

Senators Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, were the lead architects of the Senate strategy that provoked the shutdown. Each spoke Friday morning at the summit, an event considered an annual showcase for Republican presidential hopefuls — and all of their names have been bandied about as 2016 possibilities. But you’d only know from two of their speeches that the shutdown ever happened.

Amid two polls from WSJ/NBC and Gallup showing Republicans cratering to record levels of unpopularity and President Obama’s approval ratings steady, Lee and Cruz each urged Republicans to keep up the fight.

“We must stop it we must defund it, we cannot accept it,” Lee, said to applause. He added that he and Cruz “make no apologies” for their position.

Both Lee and Cruz have suffered in the polls personally since the shutdown began, with Utah Republicans divided on their Senator’s approach and Cruz’s introduction to the overall American public going even worse. And we know Cruz cares about the polls — after all, he commissioned his own.

But the two argued the cause was too critical too back down from now. Fears among conservatives that their vision of the country is on the verge of  extinction is a critical dynamic underlying the current shutdown, and Cruz pumped up the stakes of the fight at every turn.

“We have a couple of years to turn this country around, or we go off the cliff to oblivion,” Cruz said.

Underscoring this unease, the speech was interrupted repeatedly by protestors calling for immigration reform, who Cruz accused of being “Obama’s paid political operatives.” How to deal with undocumented immigrants has been a major source of tension within the party this year — some of the GOP groups and lawmakers most critical of Cruz’s shutdown strategy have also been leading voices for passing  immigration reform as part of an effort to win back Latino voters.

But at least as notable as what Cruz and Lee said about the shutdown was what their colleagues left unsaid.

After ticking off some of his conservative supporters by sponsoring the Senate’s immigration bill, Rubio spent much of the last several months rallying the party to defund Obamacare. But Rubio, who has been notably quiet on the issue since the shutdown began, didn’t mention the Affordable Care Act or the current standoff a single time in his speech, which was received tepidly by the audience. Instead he talked about income inequality and religious values, drawing a standing ovation just once when he declared “I believe Jesus Christ is God.”

Paul, another prime driver of the shutdown fight, devoted his entire speech to a “worldwide war on Christianity,” especially in Middle Eastern countries, where he denounced violence against Christians by rebels in Syria and Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt .

The Values Voters Summit is obviously geared towards religious voters, so the topics Paul and Rubio chose weren’t necessarily surprising. But it was also a high profile event where many of their most active supporters, perhaps some of them demoralized or confused by the dizzying pace of events, could look to their leaders for guidance. The entire argument these Senators made to justify their anti-Obamacare plan was that the standoff would give them a chance to showcase the law’s weaknesses, fire up their supporters, attract new converts, and eventually harness the populist uprising to force a Democratic surrender. If they’re rallying Republican evangelicals, who are they counting on to win the fight for them?