Politics & Policy

The Corner

Conservative Leaders Hedge on Support for Cruz

Cruz in Las Vegas after the Nevada republican caucuses. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

A group of conservative activist leaders that voted late last year to endorse Ted Cruz over Marco Rubio held a conference call Tuesday to re-evaluate their positions based on new developments in the Republican presidential race, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation.

The upshot: If Cruz is not successful on Super Tuesday — by carrying his native Texas at the least — some of his prominent backers are prepared to defect to Rubio.

The call was held by members of The GROUP, a secretive cabal of prominent conservatives led by the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and the Senate Conservatives Fund’s Ken Cuccinelli. The outfit has endeavored since late 2014 to coalesce “the movement” of grassroots activists nationwide behind a single GOP candidate, hoping to prevent a splintering of the conservative vote that would allow a more moderate Republican to clinch the nomination.

Not all members were invited to the discussion, which was apparently guarded from Cruz’s most loyal backers. Perkins, who did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment before this story’s publication, said afterward he was not aware of any conference call, and said there isn’t “a snowball’s chance” that he will support Rubio. (He also said any suggestion of Cruz’s allies abandoning him are “lies from the Rubio camp.” In fact, the call and recent conversations surrounding it were confirmed by multiple sources, including those not aligned with Rubio.)

The GROUP voted in early December on an endorsement, and after five rounds of balloting Cruz clinched the 75 percent supermajority needed for members to publicly support him.

That support, which included an endorsement from Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, helped lift Cruz to a victory in Iowa’s caucuses. But in the weeks since, doubts have arisen about Cruz’s “emotional connection” with the base, his backers say, and concerns have mounted about the “liar” label sticking to the Texas senator. Cruz’s key allies in the conservative movement have gone into damage-control mode, assuring nervous supporters of his continued viability. But even some of Cruz’s strongest advocates, such as GROUP member and longtime activist Richard Viguerie, have in recent private conversations confessed to doubts.

Then came Saturday night. Cruz’s deflating third-place finish in South Carolina — where he unexpectedly lost the evangelical vote to Trump — landed like a thud on his activist allies, many of whom watched the election returns together in California at a weekend-long meeting of the Council for National Policy. (Perkins is president of the CNP, an umbrella organization for grassroots leaders that has been used as a de facto staging ground for much of The GROUP’s activity.)

The Texas senator’s poor showing in South Carolina, particularly among evangelicals there — he finished six points behind Trump, and only five points ahead of Rubio — emboldened Rubio backers at the CNP gathering to question Cruz’s prospects moving forward. And Cruz’s own supporters were forced to acknowledge ominous shortcomings for a candidate whose path to the nomination runs directly through states that are ideologically akin to South Carolina.

Cruz has called March 1 his “firewall” because of the conservative, ultra-religious southern states that dominate Super Tuesday. His campaign has invested significant time and resources in those states, banking on a major delegate haul that would produce significant momentum and effectively winnow the field to two heading into the second half of the nominating calendar.

Because of that commitment, Cruz allies have drawn what one participant described as “a hard line” on March 1. They are going all-in for their candidate until then, pulling out the stops to help him win enough delegates (and ideally a few states, most important among them Texas) to remain viable beyond Super Tuesday and into the winner-take-all stage of the campaign. If Cruz flops, however, some of those prominent supporters will embark on a “pragmatic charge to stop Trump,” a source said, by jumping to Rubio.

These were the scenarios discussed by Cruz’s friends and foes alike Tuesday, just hours before Nevada Republicans began caucusing. With a shared goal of defeating Trump, backers of both Cruz and Rubio dialed into The GROUP’s conference call on the heels of a weekend of similar dialogue in California.

Cruz supporters conceded that his path forward is suddenly murky, and lamented that Trump — with an assist from Rubio — had successfully upended their candidate’s core message of trustworthiness. They also complained that Cruz has not forged a personal connection with the Republican base, without which they fear his absolutist positions and organizational strength are hollow. They agreed Cruz should devote his time and resources almost exclusively to attacking Trump and his values if he hopes to defeat the real-estate mogul in the Bible Belt and remain competitive past March 1.

Rubio allies, meanwhile, simply pressed the case that he is the only remaining candidate with broad enough support to halt Trump’s march to the nomination by defeating him one-on-one. 

Rubio’s backers inside The GROUP, who by rule have remained publicly silent due to Cruz winning a supermajority of their fellow members, have not yet pushed for release from their vow of non-support. But they are laying the groundwork for a mass defection to Rubio should Cruz collapse on Super Tuesday. Particular attention is being paid to Texas, Cruz’s make-or-break home state, where an Emerson poll Wednesday showed him ahead — but Trump and Rubio within the margin of error.

If Cruz doesn’t at least deliver Texas on Tuesday, sources involved with the discussions say, there is a chance that some high-profile conservatives will begin jumping ship to Rubio and pressuring Cruz to exit the race.

Not coincidentally, members of The GROUP who spoke Tuesday scheduled their next conference call for Wednesday morning.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated.

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