Sen. Ted Cruz announced a bid for the White House on Monday, drawing praise from grass-roots conservatives but a fierce backlash from Hispanic groups that said they were appalled at the prospect of the first Hispanic to announce for president this cycle being such a firm champion of a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
The freshman lawmaker, whose father was Cuban, has been one of the most vocal opponents of President Obama’s immigration policy. He voted against a legalization bill in 2013 and helped lead opposition to the administration’s deportation amnesty over the past six months.
Announcing his candidacy at Liberty University, Mr. Cruz sounded familiar conservative themes and said he believes “God isn’t done with America yet.”
“I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise in America,” he said.
Mr. Cruz is the first elected Hispanic Republican in history to seek the White House, but Hispanic groups found little to celebrate in the groundbreaking moment.
“We reject Ted Cruz, which is sad, because while he is the first Latino to declare his candidacy, he may be the most anti-immigration candidate on stage during the debates,” Cesar Vargas and Erika Andiola, co-directors of the Dream Action Coalition, said in a joint statement. “While Ted Cruz has a Latino name and immigration in his past, that’s where the similarities between him and the Latino community end.”
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Mr. Cruz’s announcement kick-starts the battle for the White House, and a slew of others will soon follow. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, is expected to declare his candidacy April 7.
A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, Mr. Cruz, 44, served as solicitor general of Texas. He argued several cases before the Supreme Court.
He was elected to the Senate in 2012, and in his first two years in office he regularly battled with Republican establishment leaders over strategy and stances. Those fights earned him rock-star status among the party’s grass-roots activists.
Richard A. Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, said Mr. Cruz’s announcement means the rest of the field will have to “move right to respond to Cruz, or be left behind by a grassroots conservative electorate fed-up with Republican candidates who are merely principle-free messengers for an out of touch Washington elite.”
Mr. Cruz is likely to be one of several Republican candidates adding diversity to the field. Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is black, and Sen. Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, are expected to run as well.
The big question for Mr. Cruz is whether he can build a big enough coalition to claim the mantle of the conservative alternative to the establishment candidate in a race that likely will include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Mr. Paul.
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“He potentially can rebuild the Reagan coalition by adding a populist, anti-Washington message that attracted disaffected Democrats and independents,” said Craig Shirley, a biographer of former President Ronald Reagan.
The decision to speak to thousands of students at Liberty University, which bills itself as the world’s biggest Christian college, also sent a message, he said. “This is also a shot at Bush, who so far has run an establishment, big donor campaign which has rejected faith as an organizing principle.”
Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist, said Mr. Cruz has a narrow path to the nomination.
“For Cruz to have a legitimate shot at the nomination, he has to become the preeminent candidate for both grass-roots conservatives and social conservatives, which means he has to elbow out the darlings of social conservatives — Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson,” Mr. O’Connell said.
In his speech, Mr. Cruz delivered conservative red meat by vowing to abolish the IRS, stand unapologetically with Israel and stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
He pledged to champion religious liberty, pro-life policies and traditional marriage. He touted his support of Second Amendment gun rights as well as his desire to repeal Obamacare and scrap the K-12 education standards known as Common Core.
Mr. Cruz was joined by his wife, Heidi, who is taking leave during the campaign from her job at Goldman Sachs, and his two young daughters, Caroline and Catherine.
Polls show Mr. Cruz is running toward the back of the pack and has work to do to attract fellow Hispanics.
An October survey by Latino Decisions showed that 73 percent of respondents said they are unlikely to vote for Mr. Cruz, compared with 24 percent who said they likely would. Another Latino Decisions poll showed that nearly nine out of 10 Hispanic voters, including 76 percent of Hispanic Republicans, support Mr. Obama’s executive amnesties.
Mr. Cruz asked the thousands who turned out to hear him speak to think about how the nation could benefit from his conservative vision.
“Instead of the lawlessness and the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty, imagine a president that finally, finally, finally secures the borders,” Mr. Cruz said. “And imagine a legal immigration system that welcomes and celebrates those who come to achieve the American dream.”
Hispanic and immigrant rights groups said Hispanic voters consider immigration to be a threshold issue and won’t be happy with Mr. Cruz’s stance.
“The next president of the United States — and anyone who wants that job — has to come ready with a real plan and time table to fix our country’s broken immigration system,” said Lupe Lopez, executive director of the Alliance for Citizenship. “Candidates who spew anti-immigrant rhetoric and demagoguery have no place and no chance of winning the White House.”
Mr. Cruz is the first Hispanic to hold elected office to run for the Republican nomination. Ben Fernandez, a former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay who ran for president in 1980 and 1984, earned three delegates to the 1980 Republican convention.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in 2008 became the first Hispanic to run for the Democratic nomination.