Ted Cruz aims to win the West

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzDemocrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments Brent Budowsky: An epic battle for the future of Congress Cruz: Precedent exists for keeping Supreme Court short-staffed MORE (R-Texas) is making a play for the West in the 2016 race by touting his opposition to the federal government’s expansive land holdings.

Cruz’s disdain for federal land control is resonating with Westerners whose lives are impacted by land managers, and could help him win over conservatives in Nevada, one of the early nominating states in the presidential contest.

“This is an issue he’s been focused on for quite some time, and it’s one that plays extremely well with the conservative base in the western part of the United States,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who advised the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCainJohn McCainYes, let’s set politics aside on sage grouse conservation Democrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments Obama's right to tackle redistricting, but it won't be easy MORE (R-Ariz.)

Nationwide, the government owns nearly 630 million acres, a landmass bigger than Alaska and California combined. Most of that land, managed by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, is located in states west of the Mississippi River.

Federal control is particularly heavy in Nevada, where the government owns 81 percent of all land, the most of any state.

“This is something that has been a perennial issue in the West since it became part of the United States,” said James McCarthy, a geography professor at Clark University who studies the history of western land. “It’s a staple of western politics to complain about that.”

O’Connell said Nevada is especially receptive to issues of land rights, and said opposing federal control could play “extremely well” there for Cruz.

“He really needs to get some traction, because he’s lingering in the polls, and he needs some elbow room in this potentially crowded field,” he said.

Nevada could be critical for the senator, as it traditionally follows Iowa and New Hampshire in the early stretch of nominating states. It was third on the GOP presidential calendar in 2012, and is tentatively scheduled to be fourth in 2016.

Early polling indicates Cruz has a real shot in the state.

A March 27 poll by Gravis Marketing found Cruz tied for first place in Nevada among declared and potential candidates. He and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) both drew 18 percent of registered voters in the poll, which was taken four days after Cruz announced his candidacy.

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Cruz campaign, declined to say how big of a role federal land would play in his nascent White House run.

“The senator will continue to be a champion in defending private property rights,” she said.

Should the senator seek to build a firewall for his campaign in Nevada, he could tout his work on land issues in the Senate, such as his sponsorship of amendments that would prohibit the Interior Department and Forest Service from owning more than half the land in any state.

He has also fought against the Bureau of Land Management’s attempts to claim 90,000 acres of disputed land near Texas’s Red River, and urged his colleagues to vote against last year’s defense authorization bill because of provisions that he called an “extreme land grab.”

Dick Wadhams, a Colorado-based Republican strategist, said Cruz’s defense of land and property rights will help him with conservatives.

“The Obama administration has been very hostile to agricultural, oil and natural gas, and mining activity on federal lands which has harmed rural communities,” he said.

While the issue has upside, there are also risks. Cruz took heat in 2014 when he appeared to side with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy when he and his supporters engaged in an armed standoff with federal and local authorities over his rights to graze cattle on federal land.

Cruz lamented the Bundy standoff as “liberty under assault,” but later rebuked the rancher for making remarks about African-Americans that he called “completely unacceptable.”

Wadhams warned Cruz could also risk alienating suburban voters if he pushes too hard for giving land back to the states.

“Criticizing the way the Obama administration has managed federal lands is very legitimate and needs to be part of the presidential campaign debate, but advocating a total state takeover might lose voters who might otherwise be receptive to arguments the federal government has gone too far,” he said.

The Western Values Project, which advocates for recreation and other uses for federal land, criticized Cruz’s proposals as losing propositions.

“What you find on the whole is that people in the West are interested in a balanced approach to public land management that doesn’t greatly favor one side or the other,” said Chris Saeger, the group’s director.

“People want an approach to these issues that’s pretty much down the middle and balanced,” Saeger said, citing the costs of land management to states as the top reason why wholesale transfers are a bad idea.

Still, in a primary process where big promises are expected, McCarthy, the historian, said Cruz might have little to lose by calling for a wholesale transfer of federal lands away from the federal government.

“It will help him in the primaries there, but he’ll never have to deliver on it,” he said.