Regardless of whether the grassroots campaign led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, to defund ObamaCare is politically wise, the methods and language he’s used to mobilize the conservative base are worth studying.

Cruz’s central message of “this starts with you” is delivered with a blend of genuine humility and Senatorial eloquence — enough to inspire support without patronizing. Grassroots conservatives’ relationship with the beltway establishment has long been uneasy, but these tactics could help bridge the gap.

Ted Cruz Speaks About Defunding ObamaCare

DALLAS, TX – AUGUST 20: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a town hall meeting hosted by Heritage Action For America at the Hilton Anatole on August 20, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. Cruz is staging events across Texas sharing his plan to defund U.S. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.Photo Credit: Brandon Wade/Getty Images. 

When Cruz calls for a “grassroots army,” he’s not looking merely for boots on the ground, but for digital activists to help spread his message. Just 20 years ago, three news networks and a handful of major newspapers had the power to set the narrative. Today, there are more Americans on Facebook and Twitter than there are who voted in the last election. Cruz understands that the democratization of information-sharing has created an opportunity for the digital grassroots to drive a message, even when the legacy media isn’t picking up on it.

If new media is the mouthpiece for the grassroots, bloggers and digital activists are the ringleaders, and Cruz’s reverberating impact in his seven months in Washington is a testament to his strong relationship with these leaders. His rise, in two years, from a little-known lawyer who first announced his Senate campaign on a bloggers’ conference call to a serious contender for President of the United States in 2016, has been fueled entirely by the grassroots. Even those who scoff at the Tea Party and don’t like Cruz’s brand of conservatism can no longer overlook the powerful role activists play in the party.

Cruz laid down his strategy to defund Obamacare at a Heritage Foundation bloggers’ briefing, and was met with such support that Heritage launched a two-week, nine-stop national tour and a social media campaign–#StopObamacare–that has generated significant buzz. Cruz then put in an appearance a few days later at RedState Gathering, one of the largest annual conferences for online conservative activists. By focusing on the digital grassroots, Cruz’s plans have garnered attention in the media and on the ground than other conservative proposals.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee–along with Americans for Tax Reform and a coalition of center-right groups–supports an alternative plan to delay Obamacare for a year, with the rationale that it would force vulnerable Democrats to take a vote on the delay of Obamacare before the 2014 election. This strategy would also allow Republicans to keep public attention centered on the upcoming budget showdown, forcing Obama to stand by his initial commitment to “veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending.” Despite broad support from influential center-right groups and policy makers, this plan hasn’t generated as much excitement among the grassroots–in large part because its supporters haven’t put in the legwork with digital activists.

Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) have given digital activists a new sense of importance in mainstream Republican politics by continuing to engage with them even after taking office. It would be a cliche to say that these three Senators, the youngest in the Republican conference, represent a new generation, but they certainly bring to the table a mindset different from their more senior colleagues.

The Republican establishment’s seasonal embrace of the grassroots–relying on them to do the hard work of turning out voters during election years but tuning them out while Congress is in session–has contributed to the trust gap between digital activists and the Beltway veterans. Cruz and his allies have placed the grassroots at the center of the political equation, and put in the legwork required to build relationships over time by speaking early and often to digital activists and bloggers.

From national figures like Michelle Malkin to local, community-based activists, the digital grassroots have earned the trust of the conservative base in a way that most politicians will never be able to. These activists have the power to serve as the link between Washington and the broader grassroots–if properly engaged, online leaders can both drive a narrative and organize millions of conservatives, on the web and on the ground. Unfortunately, few in the Beltway class and even fewer in the conservative leadership seem to notice.

Cruz’s rapid rise contrasts starkly with the GOP establishment, which has lost the last two presidential elections amidst low base turnout. And with its favorability ratings hitting an all-time low this spring, the party could do itself a great favor by taking a few pages from his playbook.

Agree or disagree with Cruz’s strategy, there’s a divide within his party, and the Texan is winning because of his tactics.

Erik Telford is Vice-President for Strategic Initiatives and Outreach at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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