GLENWOOD, IOWA — It was a rainy morning when Ted Cruz arrived for the first of five stops on his Iowa schedule. He could barely squeeze in the door. So many people were stuffed in the three-room coffee shop that some opted to stand outside in the drizzle rather than jostle for position indoors.
It’s an old campaign trick to pack a small room rather than swim in a large one, but the size of this crowd seemed to surprise even the organizers. “It’s a good problem to have,” Cruz said with a smirk.
Cruz skipped his stump speech and instead spoke to, shook hands with, and signed autographs for every person there, scribbling his name on copies of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, a homemade “God and Country” shirt and his most recent book. And after about an hour, he climbed into the front seat of his Iowa state director’s Dodge Dakota and opened up to POLITICO about the state of the 2016 campaign.
“There’s no other candidate in the field who has a national team that is comparable to the team of conservatives that has coalesced around this campaign,” he said.
Certainly, Cruz is riding high. Cash reports this month showed the contender sitting on the most money of any Republican candidate in the field. Two of his most direct rivals — for funds (fellow Texan Rick Perry) and for votes (Scott Walker) — have already dropped out. Jeb Bush is slashing payroll. And a Des Moines Register poll out Friday showed Cruz in third place in Iowa, behind Donald Trump and Ben Carson, neither of whom has ever won an election to anything.
From the start, Cruz and his political brain trust have divided the 2016 primary into four clear lanes: a moderate-establishment lane, in which he would not compete; a tea party lane, which he needed to dominate; an evangelical lane, where he had strong potential but little initial traction; and a libertarian lane, which began as the turf of Rand Paul.
“The players that were expected to be formidable in those lanes have not got the traction they had hoped,” Cruz said. “The most encouraging thing I would say is that I think three of the lanes are collapsing into one, which is the evangelical lane, the conservative tea party lane, and the libertarian lane are all collapsing into the conservative lane and we’re seeing those lanes unify behind our campaign.”
On this point, Cruz and the Republican establishment that hates him seem to agree. Cruz has yet to pop in the national and early-state polls but his foes and allies alike say he is poised to break through.
“He’s not to be underestimated,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. Cullen is no fan of Cruz but he predicted the senator is “likely to be one of the final four” in the primary. “I think he stands a pretty good chance of cornering the right-wing vote, which is remarkable given how large the field is.”
Scott Reed, the senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a symbol of the GOP establishment that Cruz rails against on the trail, said the Texan “is shaping up to be a real finalist in Cleveland,” where the Republican nominee will be crowned next summer. “Cruz has a strong team, approaches every week with goals and a strategy,” Reed said. “If you look away from Cruz’s TV coverage and just listen to the audio, he has the strongest message to GOP activists and primary voters.”
Even former President George W. Bush singled out Cruz as one of his brother’s top rivals, particularly in Southern states that vote on March 1, saying at a recent private fundraiser, “I just don’t like the guy.”
Cruz, who again is in the midst of battling his own party leadership on Capitol Hill, this time over a potential budget deal that would lift the debt ceiling, is accustomed to such remarks. Asked if Bush’s comments were a badge of honor, the ever-cautious Cruz paused nearly 7 seconds before he declared with self-satisfaction, “It’s not surprising that he would attack candidates who he perceives as a threat to his brother’s campaign.”
Cruz’s Houston headquarters is brimming with confidence, and no date looms larger on its collective calendar than March 1. He was the first to recruit chairmen in all 171 counties in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada but his entire strategy seems centered on the SEC primary, when a set of conservative and evangelical states across the South will dominate the voting, including Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and his home state of Texas.
“My 19-month-old daughter couldn’t color a map that’s better for us on March 1,” said Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager.
By then, if not before, Cruz hopes to have consolidated the conservative side of the 2016 ledger. Within three weeks, by March 22, almost two-thirds of the Republican delegates will have been allocated.
“In past election years a candidate could essentially move to Iowa or move to New Hampshire, live there for a year, and hope to catch lightning in a bottle and surprise everyone and ride that momentum to having a shot at the nomination,” Cruz told POLITICO. “I don’t think that’s possible this cycle and the reason is the [Republican National Committee] dramatically accelerated the process.”
“For the candidates who have not been able to raise any money, it is simply not feasible for them to run a national campaign, and so they’re not,” Cruz said.
Still, Trump and Carson stand in his way. Trump, to a large extent, has scrambled the neat lanes Cruz has delineated, drawing from angry voters everywhere. Meanwhile, Carson is pulling a large share of the evangelical vote, even Cruz’s top advisers admit.
But to the Cruz campaign’s delight, Trump and Carson have begun aiming at each other, with Trump questioning Carson’s religion and energy level over the weekend, and Carson retorting that he’d worked through 20-hour surgeries: “Doesn’t require a lot of jumping up and down and screaming, but it does require a lot of concentration.”
Cruz has drafted behind Trump for months, hoping to sweep up his supporters when what many have seen as an inevitable fall comes. But increasingly the Cruz campaign is preparing for Trump to remain a force through the primaries.
Carson, on the other hand, the Cruz campaign thinks will fade as scrutiny intensifies. Plus, Cruz intends to box out the retired neurosurgeon by winning over the movement conservatives who are desperate to unite behind a single candidate early in 2016, after back-to-back cycles nominating a more moderate Republican, who, they believe, failed to get out the Christian vote.
“It’s almost like a fable, like the Holy Grail that nobody can ever do,” said Roe, the campaign manager, of uniting the movement. “We have the unique chance this time to pull it off.”
For more than a year, Cruz has aggressively courted social-conservative leaders such as Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, who has not endorsed yet but will appear next month with Cruz at a South Carolina rally for religious liberty. One critical movement convener, Paul Pressler, on whose ranch Christian leaders gathered in early 2012 to throw their support behind Rick Santorum, has already backed Cruz. And the Cruz campaign expects two other influential Iowa leaders — The Family Leader’s Bob Vander Plaats and Rep. Steve King, whose son is working for Cruz’s super PAC — to line up behind him. “I think it would be a stunner if they didn’t,” said a senior Cruz operative.
Cruz pointed to straw-poll wins as evidence of his broad coalition: He finished first both at FreedomWorks, which trends libertarian and tea party, and at the Values Voter Summit, which draws social conservatives.
“If I woke up tomorrow and decided I wanted to run as a moderate, I couldn’t do it,” Cruz said. He is running hard to the right on gay marriage, abortion, taxes, Israel, immigration, Iran, environmental regulations, appointing judges, you name it. There is little nuance. Asked this weekend in Iowa how he would handle the Islamic State, Cruz replied, “Kill them all.”
The other candidate Cruz thinks could be left standing by springtime will be a GOP establishment contender. But he couldn’t guess who that might be, given Bush’s weakness. “The moderate lane is crowded as all get-out,” Cruz said. “Three months ago, every observer would have assumed that Jeb Bush would run away with being the moderate establishment candidate. At this point, I have no idea who the moderate establishment candidate will be.”
Whoever emerges, Cruz is betting the conservative will win out in a one-on-one race, especially if he gets a head start.
“The person who coalesces the majority of conservatives is gonna be the winner,” Roe said. “It’s not the establishment. There’s not enough people there any longer. There’s just not.”
Cruz has run this game plan before: navigating a multicandidate GOP primary against a well-funded Republican who began as the darling of the GOP establishment. That’s how he won his Senate seat in 2012, consolidating the conservative side of the electorate, forcing early favorite Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into a runoff, and then crushing him.
“I think the dynamics are very, very similar,” Cruz said of 2016.
Perhaps the most significant variable for Cruz is the dropouts this field has already seen. For the first eight months of the year, it appeared Cruz and Walker were on a collision course for hard-line conservative voters, especially in Iowa. No longer. And the departure of Perry cleared the way for a flood of Texas money.
On Monday, Cruz announced that some of Perry’s top financiers are now backing him, including Darwin Deason, who gave $5 million to a pro-Perry super PAC, and other Texas rainmakers, including Jim Lee and Brint Ryan.
Significantly, while both Walker and Perry ran out of campaign cash, they had the two richest super PACs that could have been used to go after Cruz. Now many of his remaining rivals for the evangelical vote, save for Carson, are woefully underfunded.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have less than $1 million between them. Bobby Jindal has only $260,000. None has a well-heeled super PAC, let alone the $38 million reported by Cruz’s outside allies. But Huckabee, Santorum and Jindal could bleed votes from Cruz. They combined for 7 percent in the most recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa poll.
Cruz and his allies take particular delight in his cash advantage over Bush. “You were mentioning one of the other campaigns that is slashing salaries,” Cruz told POLITICO. “We’re not slashing salaries because we started paying people low amounts at the beginning.”
And Kellyanne Conway, who is running one of Cruz’s super PACs, Keep the Promise I, added, “As far as I can tell Jeb Bush is slashing so much staff, and so much payroll, that Jeb! Is getting rid of the exclamation point.”
(Bush’s campaign did not comment for this story.)
With fewer than 100 days until the caucuses, Cruz’s paid Iowa team has just jumped from two staffers to eight, POLITICO has learned, with more reinforcements from Houston on the way. The campaign has already used its analytics department to crunch the number of target voters who live in every Iowa precinct (as well as some other early states), and scored them individually for their likelihood to turn out for Cruz.
But Cruz and his allies are trying to manage expectations too: doing enough to win in Iowa, but not investing so much the state becomes a must-win. “He’s built to last,” Conway said. “This is a process of elimination nomination. It’s a war of attrition.”
Indeed, Cruz is already planning deep into the calendar, with efforts to lock up delegates everywhere from Guam and American Samoa, to California, which doesn’t vote until June 7. Few now expect Cruz to exit the race if it becomes a prolonged delegate fight. “It is not like he has to rush back to a Senate colleague congeniality meeting,” said Reed, the Chamber strategist who also managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.
Other campaigns have taken notice of Cruz’s growing infrastructure. “I would say Cruz is the next best organized behind us,” said a senior Bush campaign official.
Cruz’s Houston-based team is a close-knit operation that works, eats and lives together. On Wednesdays, they hold group Bible study. There are wine nights, too. Rick Tyler, Cruz’s national spokesman, shares an apartment with Chris Wilson, his director of analytics. And just past the front desk of his 7th floor headquarters is a children’s playroom with a hot pink carpet, four pink and red beanbag chairs, a giant stuffed animal and a half-dozen pillows with raspberry prints on them.
The play space was the brainchild of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, a former Goldman Sachs executive who took a leave to help with the campaign. The Cruzes daughters use the space. So do the children of his aides, almost all of whom moved to Houston for the campaign. Roe relocated not only his wife and young daughter but his in-laws to Houston. On the day POLITICO visited, Cruz’s mother, Eleanor, was there making calls for her son.
The fact that the campaign’s senior leaders work beside one another is a particular contrast with the sprawling Bush operation, which, at least in the first half of 2015, was holding some meetings at the Dallas airport, as strategists flew in from Miami, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
“There are a lot of political campaigns that are staffed by mercenaries, that are staffed by people who are essentially selling a bar of soap. The candidate’s a bar of soap. OK, let’s go sell it. If this doesn’t work, we’ll move on and sell the next bar of soap,” Cruz said. “I think one of the greatest strengths of our campaign is the team that has come together.”
Others are impressed too. Reed, the Chamber strategist, said: “Cruz’s senior team moved to Houston, moved their families to Houston, and are all in this effort. No consultants flying in and out but real accountability. Very impressive.”
Roe, the campaign manager, said they are all-in for the rare chance to elect an unabashed and unapologetic conservative.
“If you tried to create the perfect constitutional conservative, you would make them like Ted Cruz,” Roe said. “You would have them be the son of an immigrant. You would have them memorize the Constitution in their teenage years. You would have them go to the best colleges in the world. You would have them study and apprentice under the best conservative jurists. Then have them run a campaign where they had to run against the moderate establishment and beat them. Like, that’s what it would be. And that’s exactly what it is.”
Despite his discipline, his pedigree and his hard-line message, Cruz has not had his breakout moment. If he does, the Republican political establishment he has so angered on Capitol Hill and across Washington is ready to pounce. But Cruz has already proved adept at turning scars from congressional battles — John McCain’s “wacko bird” insult to name a prominent one — into assets, if not a Teflon shield on the campaign trail.
“If you see a candidate Washington embraces,” as Cruz likes to say, “run and hide.”