Not a single U.S. senator has endorsed Ted Cruz for president. But over in the House, a dozen activist conservatives are going all out to catapult the first-term Texan into the White House.
Call it the Cruz caucus: a small but committed collection of likeminded rebels who’ve bonded with Cruz in their recurring, often quixotic clashes with GOP leaders.
Lawmakers like Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Mo Brooks of Alabama are attending campaign rallies with Cruz. Others are serving as surrogates at Republican debates, lending their names to fundraising appeals, and taking to conservative radio and cable TV in an effort to burnish Cruz’s credibility with crucial evangelical and conservative primary voters.
The endorsements — a rare show of support within the D.C. Beltway — come at a key time for the Texas Republican. As Cruz continues to rise in the polls ahead of the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, some Republican operatives are looking to stall his momentum. A GOP-aligned group, the Iowa Progress Project, is dumping $200,000 into a media campaign this week targeting Cruz in the Hawkeye State. That comes after recent attacks by America’s Renewable Future, a pro-ethanol outfit that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s son runs.
At the same time, other Republicans are continuing to disseminate opposition research to news outlets — most recently focused on Cruz‘s comments at a New York fundraiser that, as president, he wouldn’t prioritize opposition to gay marriage — to try and push a narrative that Cruz says different things to different audiences.
Cruz’s House backers are pushing back.
King said in an interview that he’s been an active surrogate for Cruz, talking up the candidate to the media and voters in the first-in-the-nation voting state. King’s endorsement last month was a coup for Cruz, given the seven-term Iowa lawmaker’s popularity among evangelicals and grass-roots conservatives.
The seeds of their alliance were sowed during a dispute over immigration in 2013. King wanted his proposal to overhaul the country’s immigration system to be debated but felt blocked by GOP leaders. Instead of taking his complaints to the House floor, King said he held an eight-hour press event at which Cruz spoke. Days later, the two went for steaks in downtown Washington, staying so long that the waiters ended up “turning off all the lights,” King said.
King predicted there will be a full slate of events with Cruz leading up to the Feb. 1 caucuses.
“I’ll do all the things I can to campaign. It will shift into a much faster rhythm on the other side of the first of the year” King said. “We’ll be able to get this job done here in Iowa.”
King said that to the extent that Cruz’s rebellious reputation in the Senate has been a big factor in Iowa, “it registers as a positive.”
So far, Reps. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, and Louie Gohmert and John Ratcliffe of Texas have been surrogates for Cruz at Republican debates. And Bridenstine recently hosted an event in Tulsa and did an Internet ad for the campaign pushing back against Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s attacks on Cruz’s national security credentials.
Other lawmakers who have endorsed Cruz include Texas Reps. Randy Weber, Brian Babin, Michael Burgess and John Culberson. Reps. Jody Hice of Georgia, Sam Graves of Missouri and Dana Rohrabacher of California are also behind Cruz.
Cruz campaign aides said they expect the lawmakers backing his campaign to play a more prominent role in 2016.
“As Cruz gains more support going into the actual contests, media is more interested in hearing from our surrogates,” wrote Cruz director of rapid response Brian Phillips in an email. “So we expect them to be more out in front than they have been so far.”
Cruz has made few friends in the Senate, but he has gotten isolated backup during various fights. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has backed Cruz on immigration reform. And Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) defended the Texas senator on the issue of government surveillance in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, California.
But the animus between Cruz and most other GOP senators is palpable. Cruz feuds regularly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), dismissing the Republican leader as essentially a Democrat. And Cruz resigned his leadership post with the National Republican Senatorial Committee after backing conservative candidates in Republican primaries against the wishes of the party.
McConnell has refused to weigh in on Cruz’s 2016 bid. Senate Republicans have the tough task of defending 24 seats in November, and some are concerned that having Cruz at the top of the ticket could hurt their chances in competitive states like Ohio, Illinois and New Hampshire.
But the House conservatives backing Cruz say his acrimonious relationship with the Washington establishment will only help him among Republican primary voters.
“He’s not running to be president of the Senate, he’s running to be president of the United States,” said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas). “The fact that he is at odds with members of the institution — that’s a badge of honor, that’s a plus sign.”
Brooks of Alabama agreed.
“The fact that Ted Cruz is separate and apart from how most Republican senators are conducting themselves is a major positive for Ted Cruz’s campaign,” Brooks said, noting that a majority of Republican primary voters are dissatisfied with the GOP-controlled Senate.
Brooks attended a recent rally in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, with Cruz that drew about 1,500 people. The House member has also been touting Cruz on talk radio.
Cruz has worked to cultivate ties with hard-line House conservatives, strategizing with them over chips and salsa at Capitol Hill’s Tortilla Coast during legislative showdowns in recent years. Many of the lawmakers have felt disrespected by GOP leaders and establishment bigwigs, but they see a kindred spirit in Cruz.
The bonds strengthened as Cruz helped rally House conservatives against then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), helping to tank a border security bill in 2014 and forcing a government shutdown over Obamacare a year earlier.
Burgess of Texas said he wasn’t particularly close with Cruz before endorsing him during his 2012 Senate bid. But Burgess said he was so impressed by Cruz’s condemnation of President Barack Obama on immigration that he decided to endorse the Senate hopeful live on a Texas radio station.
Burgess has attended strategy sessions that the Cruz campaign has organized for surrogates, supporters and potential backers. Burgess, a practicing obstetrician before he was elected to Congress, is also helping Cruz raise money from the medical community in Texas.
Brooks said he, too, has grown tight with Cruz over many years.
“I’ve had quite a bit of pizza over the years in his office,” he said.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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