02:46 - Source: CNN
Rival surges, ties Donald Trump in Iowa poll

Story highlights

Polls show Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina among Republicans making gains in Iowa

Buck Sexton: What's fueling outsiders is belief that GOP leadership in Congress has sold out party's principles

Editor’s Note: Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of “The Buck Sexton Show” on TheBlaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN —  

Donald Trump’s unlikely surge to the top of the GOP field has had analysts and the establishment scratching their heads for weeks. Trump’s durability at the front of the pack – despite some controversial statements – has further flummoxed even the most seasoned campaign watchers. Many have begun to resign themselves to the real possibility of Trump staying in it for the long haul even if his chances to end up atop the GOP ticket appear slim.

Buck Sexton
Jeremy Freeman
Buck Sexton

But according to the latest polling of likely Iowa caucusgoers, Trump is now neck and neck with another Washington outsider – Dr. Ben Carson. The Donald and the Doctor are tied at 23%. Add into the mix Carly Fiorina, who has jumped into third place, and Ted Cruz – a tea party favorite in fourth place, and you have a clear trend at this stage of the Republican primary:

Call it the rise of the outsiders.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Some are surely specific to the candidates as each of these nontraditional contenders for the Republican nomination offers a unique appeal to the conservative base.

Trump, for one, packages himself as the “builder,” a savvy negotiator who gets the job done, whatever it may be, and who delights in hammering the “losers” of the current political class.

Carson brings a combination of brilliance and soft-spoken humility, whose achievements as a world-class surgeon are truly impressive. His favorability rating of 79% among likely Iowa caucus voters should come as no surprise.

Cruz is an ardent constitutionalist and senator of choice for the tea party. Cruz is the only one among the outsider bunch to be a literal Washington insider, but he manages to run as a virtual outsider based on his willingness to run headlong into the machinery of Republican leadership.

Finally, with Fiorina you get experience as CEO of a Fortune 500 company instead of a career politician. And although Republicans don’t play identity politics the way Democrats do, it would be a bonus for the first woman president to come from within the ranks of the GOP.

But the distinct appeal of each candidate aside, there is a theme unifying them all – and it is why they are resonating with the conservative base:

No more betrayals from the establishment.

That is the single, clear battle cry of the conservative base across America. It’s the reason an outsider candidate such as Trump – and to lesser degrees Carson, Cruz and Fiorina along with him – have managed to overtake a slew of governors and senators – even a Bush – in the polls.

Conservative voters from coasts to cornfields feel that the Senate and House GOP leadership have sold them out. It was less than a year ago that the Republicans were handed a majority in the Senate to add to their strong advantage in the House. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promptly voted to fund President Barack Obama’s government fully, caved on opposing Obama’s immigration orders and focused on crony capitalist giveaways.

The conservative backlash to this bait-and-switch has been fierce. Promises to oppose Obama’s agenda from anyone inside the Beltway are met by the base with derision. Any GOP candidate who tries to hedge a position or lean toward the center runs the risks of being called a phony and a sellout. The GOP base is hunting for Republicans In Name Only, or RINOs.

This is all predictable – and even understandable. The GOP elites made promises they not only failed to keep but flatly ignored. People do not like being lied to, and the conservative base feels it has been lied to many, many times. It’s done with the go-along-to-get-along Republicans.

That’s the genesis of the GOP outsider surge. It’s a righteous anger from the heart and soul of the conservative movement. So far, only those who cannot be blamed for the GOP’s transgressions – those outside the halls of political power – have been able to harness it to their advantage.

The biggest winner from Thursday night’s CNN Republican presidential candidate debate: Carly Fiorina. Not only did she speak with expertise and fluency on policy, but Fiorina added some emotional inflection and personal touches to connect with the voters. Most importantly of all – she managed to be the first candidate to go toe-to-toe with Trump on stage and come out the clear victor.

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