When The New York Times calls you “a giant-killer,” you know you’ve had a pretty good night.
Ted Cruz bet big on Iowa as the only major GOP candidate to personally troll all 99 of the state’s individual counties for votes before the caucuses. And on Monday night it paid off: Cruz won 28 percent of the vote compared to Donald Trump’s 24 percent and Marco Rubio’s 23 percent.
Cruz had a tough last few weeks in Iowa, not just because of increased attacks from Trump, who went so far as calling Cruz an “anchor baby” last week. Trump bowed out of the final debate before the caucus because Fox News was too mean to the candidate who launched his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists,” leaving Cruz, the next in line in the polls, to face a firing squad onstage from both fellow candidates and moderators. Meanwhile, the Republican establishment, including Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad, grumbled that Trump would somehow be less dangerous as president than Cruz.
That Cruz managed to sway enough Iowa voters to come out with a decisive victory Monday night isn’t all that surprising, considering social conservative zealots like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have done very well there in the past. Huckabee, who basically ran his campaign this year alongside a Kentucky county clerk who would rather go to jail than sign off on the marriage certificate for two dudes, won Iowa in 2008. Naturally Santorum, who has called same-sex marriage “an issue just like 9/11,” was a shoo-in for the Republican caucus-goers there in 2012.
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Cruz came into Iowa clearly understanding the importance of evangelical and Tea Party voters in the state. Not only did he spearhead and publicize a nationwide effort to de-fund Planned Parenthood ahead of the caucuses, he sent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a politician at the nexus of the Tea Party and radical anti-abortion movements, to speak at the same caucus Monday night as Marco Rubio. And therein lies what makes Cruz different from Santorum in 2012 or Huckabee in 2008: he’s a skilled politician who, from relative obscurity, shot onto the national stage thanks to both his embrace of the Tea Party and Texas’s race-to-the-bottom GOP primaries.
Naturally, as with most developments in the GOP presidential primary race in the Year of the Trump, Iowa left us with a lot of questions that will only be answered in the weeks and months ahead: Can Donald Trump rebound or was his front-runner status mostly based on shaky polls and incessant media attention to whatever shocking stunt he just pulled? Was Marco Rubio's showing strong enough for the establishment to suck it up and rally around him? How far can Ted Cruz lead the pack past Iowa?
Oh, and how much does the Cruz family really hate campaigning?