Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) launched his presidential campaign on Monday at Virginia’s Liberty University, a private Christian college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. Liberty has become a mandatory stop for aspiring Republican candidates—and it’s not just for the campus museum exhibit of the taxidermied bear that Falwell’s father once wrestled. Liberty is perhaps the premier academic institution of the religious right, and Cruz’s choice of venue sends a clear message that he’s trying to position himself in 2016 Republican field as a social conservative crusader—and that he’s counting on evangelicals for support.
But Liberty University and its controversial founder have additional significance to the 2016 presidential race. During the 1990s, the anti-gay pastor did more than anyone to popularize the so-called “Clinton Body Count“—the notion that Bill and Hillary Clinton had been responsible for dozens of murders during and after their time in Arkansas. This conspiracy theory was the centerpiece of a 1994 film called the Clinton Chronicles, which Falwell helped distribute to hundreds of thousands of conservatives across the country.
Despite Falwell’s best efforts, though, President Bill Clinton won his 1996 re-election campaign, and the episode helped reinforce the pastor’s reputation as a bigoted crank. Republican candidates will find it hard to avoid Falwell’s institution as the 2016 campaign heats up. We’ll see if they’ve learned from his mistakes, too, when it comes to taking on the Clinton political machine.