Ted Cruz speech highlights Duval GOP Lincoln Day dinner

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A couple of news items came out of the Duval County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner.

One major endorsement: The National Rifle Association formally endorsed Lenny Curry earlier in the day, as the Jacksonville Mayoral candidate announced during a speech at the event.

And one non-endorsement: when I asked Senator Ted Cruz if he would follow the lead of other state and national notables and endorse Curry, the Texas Republican and potential 2016 GOP Presidential Candidate demurred, saying that the “mayoral race decision should be left to the citizens of Jacksonville.”

Some observers, including this writer, expected such an endorsement. However, Senator Cruz doesn’t endorse in local elections. And the Curry team had no such expectations either.

The event was prefaced by a media availability, in which Matt Dixon, a WJXT-TV cameraman, and a couple of print reporters and myself got a rare opportunity to spend a few minutes with a first-tier Presidential candidate — a sharp contrast to the Alvin Brown campaign bringing former President Bill Clinton to town and not making him available to the media at all. (There are reasons for that, of course. That event was intended to mobilize young Democrats and word is, also, that they wanted to keep it low-profile so 42 wouldn’t inadvertently upstage his wife, the expected Democratic frontrunner once she formally launches her campaign).

The media event? Well, it hit on all of the themes Cruz might hit on an appearance on Hannity. Cruz lambasted President Barack Obama for his approach to controlling illegal immigration, for not “providing serious leadership” to confront ISIS (“the face of evil”), and for being “unwilling to utter the words radical Islamic terrorism” in reference to the heinous acts of the Islamic State and the Paris terror attacks.

He also discussed the “weakness of the Obama/Kerry/Clinton foreign policy” relative to Cuba and Venezuela, admonishing that “we should not strengthen totalitarian regimes”.

He talked of his family — including his aunt, who “fought in the counter revolution”, only to find herself in prison, “tortured by Castro’s goons.”

And, in case you wondered, he addressed 2016 — a year in which he believes “it’s now or never”. He’s “looking very seriously at the Presidential race”, which he believes needs a “strong conservative.”

And Jacksonville is as good a place for Cruz to make that statement as any. The buckle of the Bible belt; the reliable Republican stronghold in this swing state. “The state of Florida plays a critical role”, Cruz said, adding that he is “humbled” by the grassroots and financial support he has received in the Sunshine State, as he concentrates on “making the case that there is a better way.”

His rhetorical strategy: to attempt to embody the spirit of the Reagan 1980 Campaign, to “reignite the miracle of America”, a strategy which would fully flower during his keynote address, in which he made it clear that he saw himself as Reagan at his purest, running against a feckless Democratic establishment that reminds him of late-term Jimmy Carter.

This is a strategy that would win primaries. If he was running.

In the press event, Senator Cruz described former Governor Jeb Bush as “a good man”, but repeated his denunciations of Common Core.

The implication was clear: no one is going to get to the right of Ted Cruz. His bet: after two cycles in which the GOP nominated candidates that mainstream conservatives supported with reservations, that the Republican Party is ready for “bold colors, not pale pastels” — a line borrowed from Ronald Reagan during that 1980 campaign.

 

Jacksonville is the testing ground for conservative tropes, and the Lincoln Day dinner had every Republican who mattered in Jacksonville in attendance. Supervisor of Elections candidate Mike Hogan was in the house, along with Sheriff hopefuls Jay Farhat and Mike Williams. But it was Lenny Curry’s show. The other, non-endorsed Republican in the race, Bill Bishop, was not acknowledged from the stage once, as speakers ranging from Duval GOP Chairman Robin Lumb to Florida GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia extolled the virtues of the former Florida GOP chair.

I asked Bishop how he felt about the program — the coronation of Curry and the Cruz speech specifically. He had no comment beyond Curry “managed to get the endorsement. It’s his show.”

As a measure of hierarchy, it was notable that Lumb felt comfortable putting Hogan over from the stage — ironic, given the agitation that happened just weeks ago to ensure that Hogan stayed out of the Mayoral race, the culmination of months of “will he or won’t he run for Mayor?” speculation and hint dropping from his camp. While we’re still a long way from a GOP Unity ticket, it’s clear that Lumb intends to bridge the divide that defined the last half of 2014 between the Curry and Hogan camps.

Ingoglia and Congressman Ron DeSantis, the Master of Ceremonies, were clever in their roles. However, the event really pivoted on two speeches, given by Curry and Cruz respectively.

 

Lenny Curry took the stage and reminded the crowd of approximately 500 Republican diehards that he was “the last person standing between you and the Senator”, and then went into a speech incorporating some themes he’s already established on the campaign trail and through advertisements along with some new themes.

Curry promoted his “Duval Door Brawl” event, to be held Saturday Morning, saying “this is how we win elections”, before asking attendees “How many of you believe in the Second Amendment?”, setting up his announcement of the aforementioned NRA endorsement.

From there, he hit his campaign’s primary themes. Such as wanting his kids to want to settle here, and “wanting the next generation to live in Jacksonville”, setting up the meat of the speech, which hewed closely to many of the public safety themes established in his PAC’s recent devastating TV ad, talking about increased incidences of murder and violent crime in “Alvin Brown’s Jacksonville”.

“The safety of citizens is the #1 priority” of conservative government, Curry claimed. “The other tenet of conservatism is fiscal responsibility,” he said, going on to describe how Councilwoman Lori Boyer recently found $35 Million that had been unaccounted for.

He asked the crowd, rhetorically, “isn’t that troubling?” Then he reiterated his call for an “emergency audit” of the city’s books, something which people in city government claim happens as part of the annual budget process anyway.

He talked of “ads and mailpieces” that will continue at least through the March 24th election, supplemented by a “ground game” to drive the necessary turnout that “wins elections”. It was a serious, stern speech to the base — intended to drive a buy in from Republicans who believe that the city fundamentally is being mismanaged, and to ensure that there is no attrition from certain Republicans to support the incumbent Mayor for his cultural conservatism relative to the Human Rights Ordinance and other issues.

The main event was still coming, but not before an introduction from Congressman DeSantis, who reiterated the themes from Senator Cruz’s press conference and anticipated many of the themes of his keynote address.

“The world is on fire,” said DeSantis, who described “Islamic jihadists on the march” and “leaders like Putin who thumb their noses at America”. These “difficult times call for a leader like Reagan”, he added, before calling Cruz to the stage.

Cruz’s speech seemed to be moving toward a refined Primary stump speech style suitable for the flyover states. “God bless the great state of Florida,” he said by way of introduction. “Ron and I spent last week in DC. It’s great to be back in America.”

He quipped about the cold in DC, saying “I’m confused — I thought Al Gore said this wouldn’t happen”, adding that it was “so cold that I saw a Democrat with his hands in his own pockets.” This last joke was a variation on a Bob Hope chestnut: “”It’s so cold here in Washington, D.C., that politicians have their hands in their own pockets.”

He delivered those jokes like they were new, working the crowd as well as Clinton worked the room the previous day at the Alvin Brown event. Different speakers, of course, working different crowds, but delivering tried and true material to bases that love the classics.

He went on to quip about his wife and kids, before delivering the red meat of the speech, an ode to the “incredible power of the American dream” and a paean to “American exceptionalism”, sounding themes he has used in recent weeks.

“We are the indispensable nation”, he said, appropriating a phrase that originated with former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “A clarion voice for freedom”, he added.

Much of the speech drew parallels between the Obama Administration and the Carter Administration, such as Cruz mentioning that we currently have the “lowest rate of labor force participation since 1978.” To remedy the current malaise, the Senator called for some solutions that resonate with the Republican base, such as “repeal [of] every word of Obamacare” and abolishment of the IRS.

“Take a padlock and put it on the IRS building and put all of those [110,000] agents on the southern border,” he said, and some would be illegal immigrant swimming across the Rio Grande would see all of those agents and turn around and go home.

He called for Washington to “defend the Bill of Rights — all of it” and to “repeal every word of Common Core”, stalking the stage like a panther, having abandoned the lectern very early on.

He reiterated his call for muscular intervention, saying that “America has receded from the world” and “has created a vacuum” with the “Obama/Clinton/Kerry foreign policy of leading from behind.”

“Our friends don’t trust us, and our enemies don’t fear us”, he said, adding that “no friend of Israel” would boycott the Binyamin Netanyahu speech to Congress in a few weeks — a speaking engagement that has drawn scrutiny from American Democrats and many in Israel alike as driven by the Israeli Prime Minister’s electoral concerns.

As in the press event, he called for conservative politicians to show voters where they stand on hot button issues, like Obamacare and amnesty for immigrants. Doing this, he argues, would help to forge a new-school version of the Reagan Coalition, involving libertarians, Republicans, fundamentalist Christians, and “Reagan Democrats.”

Senator Cruz certainly talks like an active candidate. And the Duval Democratic Party, in a statement from Chairman Neil Henrichsen, treated him like one.

By hosting the radical right wing Senator Ted Cruz, a polarizing figure far outside of mainstream politics, as its keynote speaker the local Republican Party sends a message to Jacksonville that our Duval Republican leadership has chosen radicalism to common sense. It is likely that Republican Party boss Lenny Curry, as one of the top local Republicans, sees Senator Cruz as his model for governance. Jacksonville does not want radical politics or negative campaigning, but smart leadership putting Jacksonville first. Things we’ve seen with Mayor Alvin Brown.

Curry has never given an indication that he sees Cruz as his model for governance. And informed sources claim that Mayor Brown has made his own play for the Tea Party right; one person, who was at the Tea Party luncheon, claims that someone was so impressed with Mayor Brown’s performance that she asked him why he didn’t switch to the Republican Party. While that almost certainly is not happening, it is clear that both campaigns seem to base a lot of their campaign strategy on right of center appeals. This is Jacksonville, and that historically has worked here, so why would they do anything else?

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has written for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. He is based in Northeast Florida. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski



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