MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — A crowd of tea party activists huddled outside a closed conference door here on Sunday. Many hadn’t caught a glimpse of the man they were waiting for, but they knew he was in there. “Here he comes!” someone suddenly shouted, as Ted Cruz emerged.
All day long, the Republican senator from Texas was mobbed by people who thanked him for taking on Washington, jostled for pictures and sought out hugs. Even after Cruz had departed the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention, his booth was consistently crowded.
Ben Carson and Rick Santorum made their pitches, and both were well-received. But Cruz was the crowd favorite by a landslide, and if the reception he got at the weekend gathering is any indication, the tea party vote in this critical early-voting state is his to lose.
“He is a man who has dedicated his public service to making sure government listens to the American people,” said Maria Strollo Zack, who has launched a super PAC urging Cruz to run, called Stand for Principle. “He’s not going to be bullied, he’s not going to be told to sit down and shut up.”
But while Cruz may have the early momentum with these activists, the broader battle for support among GOP activists will be one of the fiercest of the 2016 cycle. And many Republicans question how much appeal Cruz has beyond the most conservative faction of the GOP.
The senator himself acknowledged that popularity among the tea party alone isn’t enough to cinch the Republican nomination.
“For any Republican to win the nomination, you have to be able to bring together a broad coalition,” he told POLITICO. “You have to be a full-spectrum conservative.”
The fight is already on, however, to win over the tea party wing of that spectrum.
At the gathering, neurosurgeon-turned-conservative-activist Carson, former Sen. Santorum and Cruz all sought to portray themselves as the antithesis of the Washington elite — the opposition figure-in-waiting to whomever the establishment backs. And while Scott Walker wasn’t in attendance, several activists said they like what they’ve seen from the Wisconsin governor. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida have drifted from the tea party, but they were elected on the conservative wave in 2010.
“Our founders wanted to make sure there was no such thing as a political class. A select, small group of people out of which we consistently pull our leaders. That hasn’t worked so well for us,” Carson said in an apparent dig at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Santorum, who recently dismissed Cruz as a “bomb thrower,” also took a swipe at Romney. And Cruz blasted those “Washington graybeards” who keep urging the GOP to moderate — and, in the senator’s estimation, keep “getting whupped.”
Luke Byars, a top South Carolina political consultant who has worked for establishment candidates as well as former Sen. Jim DeMint, said GOP voters in 2016 may be inclined to look beyond who the most conservative candidate is to more practical considerations.
“A lot of people are going to work hard to capture tea party ideas and policies,” he said. “A lot of people are going to say the right things. But in the end, after eight years of Barack Obama as president, I don’t know that that’s necessarily the message carrying the day as much as it’s going to be, ‘Who can win?’”
At the convention, however, attendees viewed Cruz as among the most electable of their potential picks, pointing to him as someone who offered both inspiration and, from his perch as a U.S. senator, credibility. Several argued that many of the other potential contenders for the tea party vote don’t offer that combination to the same degree. And given Cruz’s platform in Washington, he has a higher profile and better early organization than other potential contenders.
A senior adviser to Cruz said that if the senator does decide to run, the effort will be led by longtime campaign strategist Jason Johnson, as well as Jeff Roe, the founder of Axiom Strategies, who joined the team last summer.
In comparison with all of that, some attendees questioned the viability of a candidate like Carson.
“I like Carson, I respect him, but something in my gut tells me he’s not the one,” said tea party leader Jeanne Seaver of Savannah, Georgia, who noted Carson’s lack of experience in politics.
As for Santorum, many of the activists here already had their opinions set from the ex-senator’s last bid.
“Rick, during the last campaign, I liked most everything about him, but I didn’t feel he had that ‘oomph,’” said Roger Keyser, 70.
Beyond the confines of the tea party convention, however, many Republicans think that the very characteristics that make Cruz so appealing to the tea party — his unwillingness to compromise on conservative principles, his central role in shutting down the government over Obamacare — would make him unpalatable outside that slice of the GOP.
Asked about those criticisms, Cruz said that he won his 2012 underdog Senate primary bid because he was able to unite a broad coalition of Republicans — albeit in deeply conservative Texas — and that he’s seeing appeal for his efforts now from the tea party as well as other corners of the party.
“The support we’re seeing right now in South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa is from that very same breadth” of people who supported him in 2012, Cruz said, adding that any eventual nominee would have to be embraced by fiscal, social and national security conservatives.
That may be especially important in South Carolina, where the tea party may not be the most important faction to decide the winner of the state’s primary. Evangelicals and veterans as well as groups opposed to abortion rights and to Common Core education standards are also formidable.
“Everyone’s been fixated, fascinated with the tea party, but the key voting bloc in South Carolina has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, the evangelical community,” Byars said. “The strength of the evangelical community here, in the upstate [region] particularly, is such that if you ignore them, if you don’t talk their issues or speak their language, you do so at your own peril.”
What’s more, the tea party in South Carolina has hardly been a monolithic voting bloc: Like tea party groups in other states, the grass roots here failed to mount a credible primary challenge in their big 2014 race. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) skated to victory with no serious opposition, despite the rage he has stoked on the right for working with Democrats on issues such as immigration.
Byars, who is currently unaffiliated in the upcoming presidential race, said Cruz has done “an exceptional job of speaking to” the evangelicals. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008, and Rubio would also be competitive with that group, he said. Santorum, on the other hand, “had his opportunity four years ago” in the most recent presidential cycle, and suggested his time has passed.
The crowd couldn’t get enough of Cruz on Sunday, constantly rising for standing ovations as the senator denounced “amnesty,” Obamacare and Common Core. Toward the end of his speech, he asked the crowd to text the word “Constitution” to a number he provided.
“Together let’s bring bold, clear leadership to America,” came the response, with a link to the Ted Cruz Victory Committee.
Bold, clear leadership is something that we’ve been lacking. What a breath of fresh air Ted Cruz would be after the distinct lack of leadership we’ve endured with an manipulative, egotistical narcissist at the helm. Please God, let it be so.