Politics & Policy

Inside the Secret Meeting Where Conservative Leaders Pledged Allegiance to Ted Cruz

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

On the first Monday of December, inside a boardroom at the Sheraton Hotel in Tysons Corner, Va., several dozen of the nation’s most prominent conservative leaders slouched in their chairs and braced themselves for a fifth round of balloting.

They were physically and emotionally drained. The activists had watched daylight come and go from the hotel’s windows, and yet they seemed no closer to a conclusion. Four times already they had voted between two candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and four times the result had been the same. Cruz had a majority, but not the 75 percent supermajority required to bind the group’s membership to support him.

The initiative, spearheaded by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, had originally brought together a loose coalition of some 50 like-minded conservative leaders from around the country. Together, beginning in early 2014, the group — referred to internally simply as “The GROUP” — met every few months to discuss the state of the race, to pray for guidance, and to conduct a straw poll to see which candidates enjoyed the most support at each stage of the campaign.

It had all built to this day and to this meeting, where members would vote until they reached a verdict. Once finalized, their decision would represent the culmination of an oft-dismissed undertaking that began several years earlier and aimed at one thing: coalescing the conservative movement’s leaders behind a single presidential candidate in a show of strength and solidarity that would position them to defeat the establishment-backed candidate in the head-to-head stage of the 2016 Republican primary.

Cruz was the heavy favorite coming into the December gathering; he had won each of the previous three straw polls and for two years had tirelessly courted the evangelical leaders who formed the group’s backbone. Heading into the meeting, the participants understood that Perkins, along with a number of other senior members, would be pushing hard to form a supermajority behind Cruz.

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But Rubio stood in his way — a scenario that seemed improbable only months earlier, when Jeb Bush still appeared to be the establishment front-runner and Rubio was dismissed as neither a threat to him nor to Cruz in the conservative lane. On the strength of his debate performances, the Florida senator had quickly begun positioning himself as the establishment favorite while simultaneously courting social-conservative leaders nationally and in the early states. This gave pause to some members of Perkins’s group heading into the fall, as they suddenly questioned the necessity of picking sides early in a Cruz-Rubio showdown.

It didn’t take long for the participants to winnow down their list. They eliminated the weaker contenders: Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson among them. This facilitated the Cruz-Rubio duel many had been anticipating: Cruz, the Protestant purist with a pit bull’s demeanor, versus Rubio, the Catholic pragmatist with a choirboy’s countenance. Or, as one member framed it: “Cruz the Fighter versus Rubio the Communicator.”

After each round of balloting, the participants paused to pray collectively, and then broke off into smaller conversations to try to persuade opponents to switch sides. Cruz allies had slowly peeled away some Rubio supporters, but the two factions appeared to be at an impasse and were hunkering down for a late night.

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And then, on the fifth ballot, several votes swung unexpectedly to Cruz, and the election was over. Cruz had the supermajority of votes, and the group had its consensus candidate. Despite the drama, the outcome had long been anticipated, according to multiple participants who spoke to National Review on condition of anonymity due to the group’s strict off-the-record rules. 

Cruz was the heavy favorite coming into the December gathering; he had won each of the previous three straw polls and for two years had tirelessly courted the evangelical leaders who formed the group’s backbone.

It represents more than a public-relations victory for Cruz. The senator has long said, both publicly and privately, that his best chance to secure the Republican nomination is to unite the conservative base behind him — and that the best way of doing so is to earn the backing of high-profile activist leaders in hopes that their endorsements trigger a cascade of support down to the grassroots level. That scenario no longer seems far-fetched, especially with Ben Carson fading and the conservative bracket of the GOP primary now cleared of one-time threats such as Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Perry.

Cruz this week surged to the top of several polls in conservative-friendly Iowa, and a string of soon-to-come endorsements should only help to cement that standing. A decision was made before the vote that members would roll out their endorsements individually rather than issuing a collective statement. This approach, they decided, would help create a perception that the conservative movement was uniting behind a candidate organically while dispelling images of political horse-trading occurring inside smoke-filled rooms.

The impact was felt immediately on the 2016 campaign. Three prominent participants — direct-mail pioneer and longtime activist Richard Viguerie, the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown, and The Family Leader’s Bob Vander Plaats – announced their support of Cruz within 72 hours of the meeting at the Sheraton. 

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But this barely scratches the surface. An avalanche of endorsements is forthcoming from conservative leaders, including James Dobson, founder and chairman emeritus of Focus on the Family, Ken Cuccinelli of Senate Conservatives Fund, and of course, from Perkins himself. (Though some prominent group members, such as Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, have made it known that they won’t endorse.)

Convinced that Republicans lost in 2008 and 2012 because the party nominated moderates who failed to galvanize the conservative base, Perkins and some close allies set out in 2013 to build a coalition of fellow activists who accepted their premise — and who agreed that the only way for conservatives to defeat the establishment in 2016 would be to unite the movement’s leadership behind one candidate before the primary season began.

Perkins attracted a number of well-connected conservatives to his cause, including Dobson, Cuccinelli, Gary Bauer, Jonathan Falwell, Ken Blackwell of the Club for Growth, Kelly Shackleford of the Liberty Institute, Rick Scarborough of Vision America, and Bishop Henry Jackson, among others. The group organized slowly throughout 2013 and early 2014, and its activity began picking up amid the home stretch of the midterm season in the late summer of 2014.

#share#The group first convened officially last August in New York City. Its mission statement had yet been codified, but Perkins already had a head of steam. In an interview in the fall of 2014, he acknowledged his goal of uniting the movement — and said the two candidates he saw on a collision course for conservatives’ support were Cruz and Huckabee. The group’s membership continued to swell, and subsequent meetings were held last December at the FRC’s headquarters in Washington, and then in January, February, May, June, August, and September in cities across the country. 

The group was described by one member as “amorphous,” with participants coming and going and not feeling obligated to attend every meeting. An understanding was struck early on: Anyone who didn’t want to participate in the final vote would be free to support whomever they wanted. But those members who participated in the final vote would be bound by its result; they could either endorse the group’s chosen candidate or no one at all but were forbidden from publicly supporting anybody else.

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The group’s activity accelerated in the springtime — a response to Republicans launching their campaigns — and its membership arranged for auditions with some of their early favorites. These came at a May meeting of the Council for National Policy, or CNP, a secretive organization of conservative activists, donors, and think-tankers that meets behind closed doors several times each year. Perkins, as it happens, is president of the CNP as well as the FRC, and the members of this smaller group joined him at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner to hear from six candidates: Cruz, Huckabee, Rubio, Perry, Jindal, and Carly Fiorina.

Cruz blew the audience away — and winked and nodded at Perkins’s group — by acknowledging the importance of a united conservative movement, and pitching himself as the ideal candidate for the influential activists in attendance to coalesce behind. Huckabee, who had more friends and longer relationships in the room than Cruz, was underwhelming. And Rubio, whom many had discounted entirely because of his immigration-reform advocacy, was surprisingly effective, leading some in the room to reconsider their dismissiveness of his candidacy.

Amid the marathon of speeches, Perkins’s group slipped away and, far from other attendees, held its first internal straw poll. The votes would be weighted: Members would assign three points to their first choice, two to their second choice, and one to their third choice. The results confirmed the dichotomy Perkins had predicted: Cruz led with a total of 45, then Huckabee with 34, Jindal with 21, Rubio with 18, Walker with 14, Santorum with 10, Carson with 2, and Bush and Rand Paul with 1 apiece.

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That pecking order remained largely static in the following months, despite Huckabee’s sinking numbers nationally and in Iowa. There was one significant development, however: On the strength of Rubio’s first debate performance, he gained momentum within the group. When they reconvened in Chicago in late August, the straw poll results read thusly: Cruz 39, Huckabee 38, Rubio 31, Walker 14, Jindal 12, Carson and Fiorina 5, and Bush, Paul, Perry and Santorum 3.

A month later the group met once again, this time at the FRC headquarters in Washington, and the straw-poll results reflected two definite trends that could be observed outside of the group as well: Cruz was consolidating the conservative lane, and Rubio was expanding his appeal among both wings of the party. The tally: Cruz 48, Rubio 39, Huckabee 27, Jindal 13, Carson 12, Fiorina 7, Bush and Donald Trump 5, Paul 2.

Sufficiently concerned at this point by Rubio’s rise, some of Cruz’s strongest allies began undermining Rubio’s support within the group. Dobson, in particular, had been warning the group since summer that Rubio’s participation in the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” bill revealed him to be a weak-minded puppet of the political establishment.

#related#Some of the group’s early participants had already left due to concerns about the process; and other conservative luminaries, such as Phyllis Schlafly, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed, had rejected from the outset Perkins’s plot to unite the movement. As summer turned to fall and the conversations focused more intently on Cruz, a few undecided participants suggested that the group slow its deliberations, while some supporters of Rubio and Huckabee dropped out of the conversations, convinced that the Texas senator had the contest sewn up.

Not everyone chose that escape hatch, however.

On the evening of the December 7 vote, John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council and a longtime supporter of his home-state senator, led a vote-whipping operation on Rubio’s behalf. Stemberger, who in May had introduced Rubio at the CNP gathering, had spent months fighting to convince his comrades that Rubio deserved consideration in their endorsement process at all. Now, he was one of two finalists, and though clearly outnumbered, anything seemed possible — especially once a fourth ballot proved inconclusive.

But it wasn’t to be. Rubio’s coalition folded on the fifth ballot, and his supporters, Stemberger included, left the Sheraton hotel with two choices: Join the “united” conservative movement behind Ted Cruz, or keep their support for Marco Rubio silent.

— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review

EDITOR’s NOTE: This piece has been updated since its original publication. 

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