Ted Cruz's plan to win back the anti-establishment vote

The Texas senator has deployed a strategy to unseat Trump as the outsider of choice.

8/21/15 5:13 AM EDT
Updated 8/21/15 11:00 AM EDT


DES MOINES, Iowa — Ted Cruz has quietly embarked on a strategy designed to reclaim the mantle of the anti-establishment presidential candidate, methodically scoring endorsements, locking down the support of hardliner activists and creating an extensive grassroots network, even as Donald Trump keeps a firm grip on the title for now.

The Texas senator and his wife, Heidi, have spent months courting Iowa activists over dinners, women’s lunches and meet-ups at conservative confabs. He plans to name a pastor to run point on faith engagement in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. His efforts in the South are aided by grassroots leaders abhorred by the establishment, but who have cachet among the region’s most deeply conservative voters.

And he has studiously avoided upsetting the angry voters who are for the moment fueling Trump’s campaign, but who could easily look for an alternative down the road.

“There’s a lot of really good, principled people in the race, but who has put together a campaign coalescing our people around the country?” said Steve Deace, a prominent conservative Iowa radio host who endorsed Cruz on Wednesday.

The seal of approval came after months of meetings with Cruz, a courtship that Deace said included dinner; meeting Cruz’s father, conservative activist Rafael Cruz who is doing religious outreach for the senator; and a small lunch attended by Deace’s wife, Amy, and Heidi Cruz.

“I watched Rick Santorum [in 2012] literally try to put the Ohio campaign on the ground the week of the primary,” continued Deace, who selected Cruz for his nod over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. “Imagine if you have months of legwork organizing, you’re up on TV matching the establishment candidate in all the states. There’s only one candidate in this race, in the conservative lane, who can do that, and that’s Cruz.”

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Cruz, who pulled in more money than any GOP candidate except for Jeb Bush so far, has spent the summer building out his staff and endorsement lists across the country, particularly in the South. He just spent seven days touring the region on a campaign bus in preparation for the March 1 SEC primary, when much of the region will vote, and rolled out a 186-person leadership team divided among states in the deeply conservative South, an adviser said.

It’s a bet that in the currently messy 17-person presidential field, Cruz can emerge as the viable conservative alternative to the Republican establishment pick, and the two will duke it out from there.

“Mobilize the base, that’s how you win,” a Cruz adviser said.

Republicans “always move to the middle, and we always lose. Cruz’s theory is, ‘Hey, why not mobilize the base and frame conservative policies in a way that will win the middle anyway?’…The point is, if you move away from the base, those are people who write the most small checks, knock on doors, put up yard signs, stuff envelopes, talk to neighbors. Mobilize those people and the base gets bigger. If you don’t, you get a la Mitt Romney.”

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In Iowa, where he will return on Friday, his endorsement list includes prominent pastors, like Bradley Cranston of Burlington, Iowa; energetic activists like Vicki Crawford, and alums of the campaigns of the past two winners of the Iowa Caucuses, both of whom are running again: Former Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, for example, was with Rick Santorum in 2012; Crawford and Deace were with Huckabee in 2008. The son of influential and deeply conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Jeff King, is also on board a pro-Cruz super PAC that has helped the senator pull in more than $50 million overall.

“What he’s doing is he’s being smart about it,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential conservative Iowa activist who has met with Cruz and his wife several times and has been approached for an endorsement, though doesn’t plan to make one until around Thanksgiving. “He’s staying on message and he’s building slow momentum, so to speak, by getting key endorsements, grassroots development and then raising money to have a national campaign.

That’s what he’s doing.”

In private conversations throughout the summer, other prominent Iowa Republicans have agreed with the “slow” part of Vander Plaats’s assessment. There was the sense that Cruz — once considered a rising star in the Hawkeye State — had faded amid middling poll numbers, and the sense that he was prioritizing other states that vote on March 1 over the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

And then there’s the Trump factor. Cruz, who led the government shutdown over Obamacare and is his party’s most virulent critic of GOP leadership, was once considered the most anti-Washington candidate in the field, but Trump has stolen that mantle. The real estate mogul is running a scorched-earth campaign that has catapulted him to the top of the national polls, despite a series of controversies that risk alienating immigrants, women, veterans, and many other groups. Even his past Democratic leanings haven’t slowed his momentum, and it’s unclear what criticism will stick to Trump, who is the beneficiary of deep-seated, anti-establishment anger among voters.

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Trump appears to have, in particular, attracted voters who would likely otherwise be interested in Cruz. But in an interview with POLITICO last week, the senator suggested that he is biding his time, refraining from offending supporters of the rival candidate and indicating that he eventually hopes those voters are engaged in electing the next GOP nominee — presumably, him.

But even with Trump aside, the competition for the conservative vote remains stiff. Cruz is seeking to appeal to evangelical, libertarian and tea party voters. As his allies see it, that means his rivals include Rand Paul in the liberty lane and Ben Carson, who is outpolling Cruz currently, Jindal, Huckabee and Rick Santorum in the religious conservatives lane. And here in the Hawkeye State, Walker was until recently leading the polls, until he got edged out by Trump and Carson. Walker is seen as appealing to both evangelicals and tea party types, and the business community, and while he has slipped recently, he is spending significant time in Iowa and is a subject of intrigue in the South, home to voters from right-to-work states who admire Walker’s confrontations with unions in Wisconsin.

Cruz, who is returning here to Iowa on Friday for a day at the state fair followed by a religious liberty rally that is expected to draw thousands of voters, insists he is “all in” in Iowa, as well as in later-voting states. He told POLITICO in an interview last week aboard his campaign bus that his strategy was to put in place campaign infrastructure in states that vote later in order to have a self-sustaining presence in those states, particularly in the South, when he returns his focus to the early states.

In the South, he has also staffed up with well-known grassroots activists. Several of those supporters are generally considered hardliners who won’t broaden the tent, but could help turn out the most committed of the conservative activists for Cruz, in keeping with his strategy of mobilizing the base.

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In Mississippi, for instance, Cruz’s state co-chair is Chris McDaniel, the state senator who unsuccessfully primaried Sen. Thad Cochran last year in perhaps the nastiest and most divisive GOP primary contest of 2014. Keith Plunkett, a key McDaniel adviser, is Cruz’s other Magnolia State co-chair, and is already taking shots at the state GOP over not, in his view, sufficiently playing up Cruz’s visit last week (the party didn’t receive a heads-up, said Mississippi GOP Chair Joe Nosef, who expressed skepticism that McDaniel would have much of anything positive to say about the party anyway).

“The people who view themselves as hardcore McDaniel supporters are the people he’s going to help with, but certainly not the entire group of people who voted in the race or the runoff, because the following month turned off a significant number of people,” Nosef said, noting that McDaniel lost the runoff and that many voters were troubled by his failure to concede the race, as well as what were seen as his allies’ heavy-handed tactics.

But at rallies in Tupelo and Olive Branch, Miss. last week, the hundreds of adoring activists who turned out to see Cruz and McDaniel, many of whom still had the latter’s bumper sticker on their cars, made clear that McDaniel can still energize a slice of the conservative activist base in the state, which votes March 8. He has a “huge following,” the Cruz adviser said.

There’s a similar dynamic in South Carolina, where Cruz’s leadership team includes state Sen. Lee Bright, who unsuccessfully primaried Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2014, and state Rep. Bill Chumley, both of whom led the charge against taking down the Confederate flag at the statehouse following a shooting at a black church in Charleston.

“They are the leadership within a small group of a smaller group of hard-right ideologues who, while well-intentioned, will not do much to expand the voters of the Republican Party,” said Chip Felkel, an unaligned GOP strategist who worked for George W. Bush in previous elections. “Those people, I don’t know that they have a lot of appeal outside the hardest of the hard-right activists in the Republican Party.”

But with a base-focused strategy, that may be all Cruz needs for now. Down the road, however, Cruz’s challenge even among conservative voters is to demonstrate to enough Republicans that he is principled while still being electable, said Vander Plaats, who is deeply connected to the grassroots,.

“Cruz, I believe, will provide bold leadership if he wins,” he said.

“His hurdle is, can he be the candidate to unite Republicans and Americans around his candidacy if he wins?”

He added that all of the candidates have an electability question, to some degree, but “It’s a long race. It’s early. What he wants to do is be on top of the polls in January, not August.”