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.
Paul, who is one of Cruz’s top Senate allies, dismisses talk of a Cruz-Paul rivalry, and has assured me that they’re friends. But sources in Paul’s camp see the rise of Cruz in much the same way as Laudner does: It’s something all conservative presidential candidates have to consider as they look at their game plans. Paul’s people are confident that Paul’s national network, fundraising base, and name identification outpace those of Cruz, but they know he is going to be a fierce competitor for the same bloc, should both decide to run. They also believe that Paul’s base may be similar to Cruz’s, but it doesn’t exactly overlap, since Paul has a record and roots with libertarian Republicans, which Cruz lacks.
“These days, there are are two silos of the Republican party: the regular Republicans, if you will, and the movement-conservative coalition that’s united by anti-establishment rhetoric and populism,” explains Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who has worked for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain of Arizona. “If Cruz runs, he is going to be the strongest candidate in that movement-conservative silo. He’s charismatic and highly intelligent and says what the base wants to hear. He could maybe even win the nomination, and on the way, he’d be a huge obstacle to Santorum, Huckabee, and Paul. But he’d be a disaster in a general election — a Republican George McGovern.”
And in a primary fight, Cruz’s initial glow from his first trips to Iowa could fade quickly. “It’s kind of comical to read everything about Cruz right now, since we’re years away and it’s way too early to know whether Cruz has staying power and doesn’t wilt under the bright lights,” says Hogan Gidley, a former Santorum adviser. “He may be a flavor of the week. There’s a big difference between making moves in 2013 and being able to go the distance like Santorum did, with grit, deep into the process.”
Beyond the right of the GOP, there’s less fear of Cruz. Sources close to former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Rubio tell me that they’re still expecting the Cruz buzz to fizzle as new issues pop onto the Republican radar in the coming year. “I haven’t figured Cruz out yet,” says former New Jersey governor Tom Kean Sr., a Christie confidant. “I think the party is going to be looking for some unity and national appeal in the next presidential election, and if they want someone who can be as abrasive as Cruz, Christie would easily compete with him on the question of who can throw a good punch. If the party wants to win, it’s going to go with someone who can unite us and not divide the party into narrow groups.”
New York congressman Peter King, who’s contemplating his own run for the White House, agrees. “Cruz is like Paul, coming out of the isolationist wing, and I don’t think he’s going to get that far with that message,” he says. “If I run, I’d be pretty vocal about telling him that I wouldn’t have joined Paul for that drone filibuster, or talked about shutting the government down to make a point on Obamacare. Eventually, he’s going to have to answer to things that are out of his comfort zone. Even among his own wing of the party, he may have problems with the likability factor, since Paul has a more friendly, approachable political style.”
Meanwhile, whatever the speculation in Washington and elsewhere, Laudner reminds me that Cruz is out there, in Des Moines and Ames, shaking hands, building relationships, and getting ready. “He’s caught us by surprise this summer, and it seems like he’s just beginning. Some Republicans may not like this development, but we’re all paying attention.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.