The report released Monday
, one year in advance of the 2016 elections, evaluated most of the Republican candidates in six categories: growth, opportunity, civil society, limited government, favoritism and national security.
Heritage Action excluded Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and former Govs. George Pataki and Jim Gilmore from their analysis as they languish below even 1% in most polls.
The advocacy group, which operates politically to support ideals espoused by its sister think tank, The Heritage Foundation, looked most favorably on Cruz as the Texas Republican courts conservative tea party and libertarian voters for his campaign.
Cruz got praise across all of Heritage Action's categories, the only candidate to not receive any mixed reviews. The group also especially praised his fight against "favoritism" in politics, saying he's been "willing to pay a political price" to take on perceived cronyism in politics.
"Sen. Cruz has been at the center of the highest-profile fight about big-government favoritism in the current Congress: the debate over ending the Export-Import bank," the authors wrote, noting how he called out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by name on the Senate floor. "It cost him political capital in the U.S. Senate, but in doing so, Sen. Cruz demonstrated real leadership."
As political outsiders Trump and Carson hold strong leads in the polls over the politicians in the race, Heritage gave them more mixed evaluations and even appeared to subtly mock some of their policy positions.
Trump had at least one caveat noted in each of Heritage Action's categories, including supporting tariffs on imports that Heritage said would "damage the American economy," "appearing sympathetic to left-wing rhetoric" and weak in opposing the left's agenda socially, promoting big government policies and supporting "eminent domain abuse."
On national security, Heritage said Trump's statements "raise questions of significant consequence."
"Mr. Trump's foreign policy approach at this stage is best defined by a strong rhetorical posture and a far greater commitment to project American power than has been demonstrated by the Obama Administration. This would be an improvement, but it is difficult to assess what it would mean in practice given Mr. Trump's lack of experience on these issues," Heritage Action wrote. "Some of Mr. Trump's stated views raise complicated questions about their long-term implications for the United States and its allies."
Carson fared slightly better but still raised red flags for the group. The authors dinged Carson for not adequately tackling entitlement reform and "expressing openness" to regulations opposed by the group, as well as having "not articulated" a national security plan.
"As a candidate who has never held public office in the past, the burden of proof is on Dr. Carson to demonstrate his fluency with national security issues," the authors wrote. "Dr. Carson is correct that the next president need not be a professor of international relations or a former Secretary of State to serve as an effective executive. Nonetheless, he has not yet shown the very sort of vision that he himself has argued is necessary."
Heritage Action also raised the specter of Carson's medical career in the civil society category, saying his record of referring patients to abortion practitioners and having used fetal tissue for research has raised questions about the strength of his anti-abortion views.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who is rising in the polls and gaining momentum off a strong debate performance, got generally positive feedback from the group, but Heritage Action also noted what is seen as one of Rubio's biggest weaknesses with conservatives: his history of spearheading immigration reform in the Senate.
"Rubio's openness to policies like amnesty mars his efforts to take on the Washington establishment," the group wrote.
Heritage Action publishes a scorecard on lawmakers based on how their voting records align with the group's objectives. Rubio still maintains a 93%, while Cruz has a 100% and is the top-rated senator. Graham, the only other senator in the Republican race, has a 41%.
Other establishment Republican candidates got reviewed mostly unfavorably by the group, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
The group also had concerns about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, including "some peculiar views" he has advocated on national security. Specifically, Heritage Action noted Huckabee speaking out against the Bush administration's foreign policy when other Republicans were supportive and talking up the need for diplomatic engagement with Iran.
Heritage Action did not make a formal endorsement or give any candidate point scores, but the policy evaluations show where the influential group is leaning in its feelings on the various candidates.