Ted Cruz for President?

Conservatives are literally praying that the Texas senator will be the 2016 nominee. The rest of the Republican Party isn't so sure.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

FORT WORTH, Texas—After finishing his speech, Ted Cruz announced he would take questions from the audience. But instead of asking him anything, they just wanted to tell the Republican senator how great he was.

"When I look at you, I can imagine you would be just like one of the founding fathers of this country," one woman said from the microphone stand in the middle of the hotel ballroom.

"Honor to you, Ted Cruz," said the next. "We would like to see you in the White House in 2016!" The crowd—about 300 conservative activists attending this weekend's RedState Gathering—erupted in cheers.

At meetings like this one, both in his home state of Texas and across the country, Cruz is a bona-fide rock star. "It's like all the Beatles in one person," gushed the Texas gathering's emcee, Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the widely read RedState, who introduced Cruz by hailing him as "the leader of the conservative movement in the United States."

Since joining the Senate last year, Cruz has managed to unite a divided Washington against him by infuriating Republicans and Democrats alike. He was blamed for last fall's government shutdown and last week resumed his inflammatory tactics, successfully urging House Republicans to reject proposed border legislation. The sharply conservative bill that passed the House in lieu of the original would rescind the temporary amnesty granted by President Obama to some young undocumented immigrants.

These antics have made Cruz a hero to the hard right, which thrills to his disruption of the GOP establishment. He has spawned a legion of imitators, such as John Ratcliffe, who became one of the few candidates to oust a Republican incumbent in a primary this year when he unseated 91-year-old Texas Representative Ralph Hall. Ratcliffe told me he modeled his campaign on Cruz's from 2012; his message in speeches is that he will not be an automatic vote for Republican leadership in Washington. Presumably, when Ratcliffe gets to Washington next year (he has no Democratic opponent in November), he will be one of the House conservatives who meet Cruz over pizza on the eve of important votes. "Most of the Texas delegation supported my opponent," Ratcliffe told me. "Senator Cruz didn't, and I appreciate that."

There is a Draft Ted Cruz for President super PAC, formed by a former Cruz staffer named Raz Shafer, that has, with minimal publicity, raised about $200,000 since being formed in March and collected more than 17,000 petition signatures. And everywhere he goes, Cruz meets devoted fans who implore him to seek the White House. "He reminds me of Ronald Reagan," 68-year-old John Paxson of Northlake, Texas, told me reverently. "There is no one else who has his ability to articulate what we are feeling inside."

Cruz is conspicuously considering it. He has been to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina in recent months. Asked about his ambitions after his speech on Friday, he replied: "I think Republicans should nominate whoever is standing up and leading—whoever is standing up and leading and fighting the fight" by "making the case" for change. That just happens to describe what Cruz believes he is doing: "My focus," he said, "is on energizing and mobilizing the grassroots, and making the case we've got to change our path."

Seeing Cruz in this favorable environment, you might assume he was already the odds-on favorite, the undisputed frontrunner of the 2016 Republican field. That is not the case. When prospective Republican primary voters are asked whom they hope to nominate, Cruz tends to hover in the high single digits; the poll aggregator RealClearPolitics has him, on average, in seventh place in an 11-candidate GOP field, behind Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, and Rick Perry. It's too early for that to mean much, of course, and Cruz's boosters believe, for all the headlines he's garnered, he is simply not as well known as the others. But it's also clear that the ardent right-wingers who cheer for Cruz in hotel ballrooms don't constitute the entire Republican base.

Every politician creates his own version of reality, but Cruz's effect is particularly through-the-looking-glass. "Let me tell you what's not getting a lot of coverage in the mainstream media," Cruz told the Fort Worth crowd. "Conservatives are winning!" He pointed to legislation he had stopped—gun control, IMF reform—and public-relations battles, like the time last month when he "put out a long statement raising a series of questions" about the Federal Aviation Administration's ban on flights to Israel; 36 hours later, "the administration lifted the ban." And he pointed to fights still in progress, like the border bill and repealing Obamacare.

In reality, most Republicans believe Obamacare is here to stay, and the border-bill gridlock has merely emboldened the president to act unilaterally. In this year's Republican primaries, fewer incumbents lost than in any year since 2008, a signal that Tea Party fervor has faded and the Republican establishment has retaken the GOP's reins. A party that's tired of losing national elections may be wary of the risky electoral bet Cruz represents, Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican consultant, told me. "There's an idea out there that he would be the next Goldwater, a belief that he would get beat in a general election," Mackowiak said. "That's a real threat to his candidacy." Nationally, he added, Cruz is associated principally with the government shutdown, making him a symbol of a broken and despised Congress.

In the hermetically sealed world of conservative blogs and get-togethers, however, Cruz remains the hottest ticket. At the end of his speech, as the crowd waved red-and-blue signs handed out by Cruz's staff and bearing his hashtag-slogan, "#makedclisten," Erickson, the RedState honcho, was suddenly moved to do something he had not done for any of the other speakers on the program. "Folks, let's pray for Senator Cruz," he said.

Erickson gripped the podium with both hands while Cruz, standing to one side, leaned over and braced one hand against it. "Father, there are those who hear Senator Cruz and his voice and his leadership inspires them," Erickson said, his eyes squinted tightly shut. "There are others, Father, that turn from him, and we pray, Father, for your protection upon them. We pray, Father, that he can be a beacon to this country."