Politics & Policy

In Iowa, Whispers of an Anti-Cruz (and Pro-Rubio) Alliance


Cruz at a campaign event in Iowa in August. (Scott Olson/Getty)
Some who mistrust the Texas senator may tactically support Rubio over their first-choice candidates.

To a concerned and angry bunch of Iowa Republicans, their mission heading into next month’s caucuses is as simple as ABC: Anybody But Cruz.

As the Texas senator solidifies his front-runner status with just over a month to go before the February 1 caucuses, a loose network of social-conservative activists has undertaken a quiet effort to defeat him by any means necessary — even if that means rallying together behind a more electable rival to their own preferred candidates.

Many supporters of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the last two winners of Iowa’s Republican presidential contests, are grappling with a pair of grim realities as the 2016 caucuses approach. Not only have their candidates been stuck in the low single digits for months in Iowa, but they also view Cruz, the new front-runner, as a phony opportunist who has pandered to Evangelicals for political gain, particularly in Iowa. And they fear that if Cruz notches a win in the Hawkeye State — especially if he does so by a wide margin, which many Republicans now view as a distinct possibility — he will emerge as the overwhelming favorite to capture the nomination. 

These assumptions have led to a pair of common conclusions: First, that preventing Cruz from winning Iowa is more important than promoting their own preferred candidates. And second, that if the only way to accomplish that is by throwing their support to another candidate, it should be Marco Rubio.

RELATED: Ted Cruz Is Blowing the Doors Off in Iowa

“This is real. There exists this feeling that Senator Cruz is only the most recent Christian conservative presidential candidate, and that the two individuals who preceded him in the 2008 and 2012 caucuses have not been given the respect that they deserve as voices in the Christian conservative movement,” says Jamie Johnson, a former member of the Iowa GOP state central committee who supported Santorum in 2012 and has not thrown his weight behind a candidate after supporting former Texas governor Rick Perry earlier this cycle.

“It is absolutely clear to me that many Huckabee and Santorum supporters are going to swing toward Marco Rubio, because he is a Christian conservative who they feel embodies more of the character traits that Huckabee and Santorum embody,” Johnson says. “That’s what I’m hearing from both camps.”

Why the antagonism toward Cruz from those who largely agree with his message? Some of it can be chalked up to sour grapes; backers of Huckabee and Santorum are angry and disappointed that their candidates have been unable to rekindle the magic of elections past. Yet sudden talk of an anti-Cruz effort has echoed in many recent conversations with Iowa Republicans, some of whom are supporting different candidates and others who are unaffiliated.

RELATED: Cruz Is Playing the Media Perfectly

For now, there are only murmurs about moves being made behind the scenes to damage Cruz. Several Republican sources point to Nick Ryan, a prominent Iowa strategist who leads the pro-Huckabee super PAC Pursuing America’s Greatness, as a key player in the anti-Cruz efforts. Ryan is known to have longstanding ties with operatives in Rubio’s orbit, most notably Sean Noble, whose group American Encore has been running ads pummeling Cruz on national security. Sources believe that Ryan has signaled to those allies a willingness to boost Rubio by weakening Cruz.

Meanwhile, an operative with one conservative campaign says he reached out to Rubio’s team to discuss forging an alliance against Cruz. On the ground at an event in Iowa, the operative says he approached Rubio press secretary Brooke Sammon and told her, “We have a common enemy, and I’m a firm believer that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Rubio campaign declined to comment on the exchange.

At the heart of these amorphous efforts is an agreement among supporters of both Huckabee and Santorum that if their candidate can’t win Iowa, they should at least work toward stopping Cruz from running away with a victory.

RELATED: Rubio vs. Cruz: The Fight for Conservatism

Ryan declined to comment on the potential for collaboration with other campaigns against Cruz, saying only that he’s focused on electing Huckabee. Yet he acknowledged that his super PAC — as well as the Iowa Progress Project, another group he founded — is currently running a six-figure media campaign attacking Cruz for alleged hypocrisies on ethanol and same-sex marriage.

The anti-Cruz effort may not be limited to ad campaigns. Sources familiar with the discussions say there are proposals to pool resources that can be used for voter outreach and education as well. A primary target of such a campaign would be Iowa’s churches, where Cruz’s opponents believe parishioners have been misled about the Texas senator’s record on the issue of same-sex marriage. 

After assuring voters that opposing gay marriage would be “front and center” in his campaign, Cruz told attendees at a Manhattan fundraiser earlier this month that it would not be a “top-three priority,” according to a recording leaked to Politico.

Cruz, says Santorum’s senior adviser Matt Beynon in response to the recording, “makes Mitt Romney and John Kerry look consistent.”

Huckabee’s campaign also pounced on the recording, blasting out a statement from the candidate that read: “Conservatives are being asked to ‘coalesce’ around yet another corporately funded candidate that says something very different at a big donor fundraiser in Manhattan than at a church in Marshalltown.”

#share#While Cruz’s remarks do not represent an overt contradiction, his view — that each state should make its own marriage laws — is atypical for a candidate who, like Cruz, has worked tirelessly (and rather successfully) to win the endorsements of Evangelical leaders across the country. 

“Ted Cruz is not your classic social conservative,” says Craig Robinson, the former executive director of the Iowa Republican party. “Ted Cruz is fine with 50 different marriage laws. Ted Cruz is fine with 50 different laws defining when life can begin. Ted Cruz has been extremely fortunate that a guy like Rick Santorum hasn’t been on the debate stage with him, because Santorum would flesh out those differences.”


There’s also the matter of experience, which has likely exacerbated frustrations. Cruz is brand-new to the national stage, having served just three years in the Senate with no legislative accomplishments to his name. Santorum and Huckabee are both prior winners of the Iowa caucuses and runners-up for the Republican nomination. During his House and Senate tenure, Santorum fought for the passage of legislation banning partial-birth abortion and worked to draft a major welfare-reform bill. Huckabee, a celebrated figure in social-conservative circles for two decades, is a past chairman of the National Governors Association and remains the longest-serving governor of Arkansas.

If they’re serious about it, time is running short for Cruz’s opponents to orchestrate an effort to stop him.

Rubio has ties to Huckabee’s political apparatus: He endorsed Huckabee for president in 2008 and served as his Florida co-chaira decision he attributed at the time to Huckabee’s standing on social issues. “I want the Republican party to be the party of life and family, and Mike Huckabee is the best candidate on those issues,” Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times in 2008.

The Florida senator lacks any such connection to Santorum, but that has not kept some Santorum supporters from privately voicing their admiration for Rubio. In public, Santorum has sided with Rubio in recent spats with Cruz over immigration and foreign policy, two issues on which Cruz has faced nagging questions about his consistency and authenticity. “There isn’t a substantive policy difference between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz,” Beynon says of the immigration dispute. “The difference is, Marco Rubio is honest about his position. So while Senator Santorum disagrees with both of them, at least Senator Rubio is being honest with the American people about what his position is.”

If they’re serious about it, time is running short for Cruz’s opponents to orchestrate an effort to stop him. Neither Huckabee nor Santorum is expected to make the main debate stage in South Carolina on January 14 or in Iowa on January 28, robbing two of Cruz’s chief antagonists of high-profile platforms from which to attack him directly.

#related#The most obvious way for Huckabee and Santorum to swing the race against Cruz would be to drop out and throw their support behind Rubio. But according to sources familiar with the candidates’ thinking, it’s highly unlikely that either would do so before Caucus Day. 

“They’re both fighters. I think they’re in it through Iowa,” Johnson says. “If they drop out after Iowa, will Mike and Rick endorse? I don’t see either of them endorsing Ted Cruz. I see them both endorsing Marco Rubio.”

But by then, Cruz detractors fear, he will have won Iowa and gained a head of steam moving into New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and the red states that dominate Super Tuesday, on which he has staked much of his campaign. And if Cruz’s strategy succeeds, it will be too late to stop him.

— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review. Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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