The early dynamics of the 2016 Republican presidential-primary contest were jolted on the morning of Friday, July 19, in a ballroom on the third floor of the Marriott hotel in downtown Des Moines. It was there, in front of coffee-sipping pastors, that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas wowed the kingmakers of the Iowa caucuses for the first time. Without notes and ignoring the podium, he roamed the carpeted dais for nearly an hour, quoting Scripture and musing about the Democrats and their occasional affinity for Satan. The reception was rapturous. Many ministers eagerly asked Cruz’s advisers where they could sign up for a campaign that doesn’t exist, while others encircled Cruz and laid their hands on him to pray.
Veteran operative Chuck Laudner, who guided former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s victorious Iowa campaign last year, was in the room and remembers the scene vividly — and he knew immediately that all the post-2012 conventional wisdom about the 2016 field was, with one speech, obsolete. To him and others who make their living as consultants within the Republican universe, the visceral response by Iowa preachers confirmed Cruz’s ascent as a new, potentially disruptive force in the GOP’s presidential-primary calculus. Instead of the looming battle for tea-party support in Iowa and South Carolina featuring a group of middleweight contenders — vanilla governors, House members, and little-known senators — it appeared that a Cruz phenomenon could overwhelm them all.
“There’s no question he’s setting the pace right now,” Laudner says. “He’s the hard act to follow. He’s speaking the language that the base uses when they’re chatting with each other at events or huddling at high-school football games. He channels the anger and frustration that conservatives have not only with President Obama, but also with the Republican establishment. His ability to seize that undercurrent and connect with those voters has elevated him. Now, in Iowa, he hasn’t crowded out Santorum or Rand Paul, who have their own bases of support, but he has muted the discussion, for example, about Scott Walker and Paul Ryan.”
If Cruz continues his frenetic rise through the conservative ranks, he may be the biggest threat yet to the presidential hopes of Santorum, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Kentucky’s Paul, and Wisconsin’s Walker and Ryan — all of whom at one time or another have been conservative stars and been seen as having a path, however narrow, to the nomination from the party’s right. “He’s already gaining support among the people who supported Santorum, who like Rand Paul, and who supported Mike Huckabee five years ago,” says Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa evangelical leader who hosted Cruz at a recent weekend summit in Ames, Iowa. “It’s startling, but it’s happening.”
The secret ingredient to the senator’s success, so far, has been the organic appearance of his growing popularity. Rather than going on a hiring spree of Beltway heavies and signaling his expected intentions, he appears to have kept the inner circle from his 2012 Senate campaign mostly intact. Advisers Jason Johnson, John Drogin, Jordan Berry, and Chip Roy are the nucleus, and they’re not looking to hire any major political hands, at least for the moment. People familiar with the operation say Team Cruz is running the senator’s shop as if he is preparing to lead a grassroots movement; they’re not playing by same playbook as the others.
“It’s the same model they used for Cruz in Texas,” says a Republican insider who is close to Cruz’s aides. “They make it seem like a ragtag, outsider thing, when it’s really a tightly run ship. But they’re smart with how they handle the unpaid volunteers; they’re sharp at keeping people involved and feeling like they’re part of something.” At the Vander Plaats gathering, Cruz hinted at his low-key but humming machine when he told attendees to text the word “growth” to his political-action committee, which will then hold on to those numbers for a future project — whatever that may be.