Inside the Secret Meeting Where Ted Cruz Trounced His Rivals

The Texan is winning the race to convince conservatives that he is the far-right candidate who can beat the GOP establishment.

This image can only be used with the Tim Alberta piece that originally ran in the 6/6/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Senator and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz answers questions from local media following a town hall meeting at the Beacon Drive-in restaurant on April 3, 2015 in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  The Beacon Drive-in, traditionally a popular venue for campaigning politicians, was Cruz's 2nd stop of the day in South Carolina.
National Journal
June 5, 2015, 1 a.m.

Ted Cruz is blanketed in con­fetti, rain­ing from the rafters of a Clev­e­land arena. It’s Ju­ly 2016, and the sen­at­or has sur­vived a gruel­ing, 18-way primary to win the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion thanks to a groundswell once dis­missed as fantasy. The surge came from the col­lect­ive en­dorse­ment of na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers that boos­ted Cruz or­gan­iz­a­tion­ally and fin­an­cially, pav­ing his way to a win in Iowa, a top-three fin­ish in New Hamp­shire and South Car­o­lina, and a cleanup in the South­ern primar­ies of March. Marco Ru­bio, Scott Walk­er, and Jeb Bush had hung on, steal­ing votes from one an­oth­er un­til each dropped out after it was already too late. The race is over.

Im­prob­able? Yes. Im­possible? No. While most Re­pub­lic­ans dis­miss this scen­ario, it re­mains con­ser­vat­ives’ the­ory of the case for how one of their own can win the White House. And eight months out from the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz is closer to prov­ing it can be done. Be­cause after walk­ing in­to a Tyso­ns Corner hotel in May, the door clos­ing be­hind him, Cruz de­livered something none of his com­pet­it­ors could—a cam­paign plan that has per­suaded some of the most in­flu­en­tial con­ser­vat­ives in Amer­ica that they might de­feat the GOP es­tab­lish­ment’s can­did­ate for the first time in a gen­er­a­tion.

This has been the stuff of dreams and schemes among con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers since George W. Bush left the White House. Con­vinced that Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ated a “mod­er­ate” in the past two pres­id­en­tial elec­tions be­cause the con­ser­vat­ive vote was splintered—and cer­tain that John Mc­Cain and Mitt Rom­ney lost in Novem­ber be­cause the GOP base didn’t turn out—this clutch of right-wing act­iv­ists wants des­per­ately to pre­vent a third act. In con­fer­ence calls, email chains, and private meet­ings across the coun­try, they have plot­ted to ac­com­plish in 2016 what they could not in 2008 or 2012: unit­ing be­hind a single can­did­ate.

So on a Sat­urday morn­ing last month, when Cruz au­di­tioned at a Ritz-Carlton for the sup­port of a group that most Amer­ic­ans have nev­er heard of, he offered something no oth­er can­did­ate did: a full-throated em­brace of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment’s mis­sion and a dev­ast­at­ing dis­sec­tion of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s strategy. It could well end up be­ing the most im­port­ant speech of his 2016 cam­paign.

“This is a room of war­ri­ors. This is a room of pat­ri­ots,” Cruz said as he began his present­a­tion to the Coun­cil for Na­tion­al Policy—a shad­owy non­profit pop­u­lated by the Hill staffers, think-tankers, con­sult­ants, donors, and ideo­lo­gic­al mer­cen­ar­ies who call them­selves “move­ment con­ser­vat­ives.” They meet sev­er­al times each year around the coun­try to dis­cuss le­gis­lat­ive ini­ti­at­ives and polit­ic­al strategy, al­ways in secret and al­ways off the re­cord.

(RE­LATED: Hot­line’s GOP Pres­id­en­tial Power Rank­ings)

Ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with nearly a dozen people in the room, some of whom provided notes and even a re­cord­ing of Cruz’s speech on the prom­ise of an­onym­ity, Cruz noted that he’d been at­tend­ing CNP events for a dec­ade. “The pur­pose of this gath­er­ing, I think, is par­tic­u­larly mo­ment­ous: To dis­cuss co­ales­cing the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment to win the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion and win the pres­id­ency in 2016. “¦ Every one of us knows there’s a group of folks right over the river, in Wash­ing­ton D.C., that want noth­ing more than for this room to be di­vided. “¦ D.C. knows if we’re di­vided, then the mod­er­ate Wash­ing­ton can­did­ate with all the money comes right through and wins the nom­in­a­tion with 26 per­cent of the vote.”

Cruz lowered his voice: “The stakes are too high for that.”

THE 44-YEAR-OLD, first-term sen­at­or was one of six pres­id­en­tial con­tenders to ad­dress the group that week­end. The oth­ers were Ru­bio, Mike Hucka­bee, Rick Perry, Bobby Jin­dal, and Carly Fior­ina. The format for every­one was identic­al: 30 minutes to speak fol­lowed by a round of rap­id-fire ques­tions from Tony Per­kins, who serves as CNP’s pres­id­ent and, much more vis­ibly, the head of the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil.

But as the for­um got un­der­way, it be­came ap­par­ent that most of the speak­ers hadn’t pre­pared them­selves ac­cord­ingly. In fact, five of the six can­did­ates gave some ver­sion of the stand­ard stump speech they of­fer the pub­lic, at­tendees said, ig­nor­ing what one de­scribed as “the ele­phant in the room, this idea that people want to co­alesce be­hind one can­did­ate.”

The lone ex­cep­tion was Cruz. “He was the only one who bought in­to that and tailored his en­tire speech to it,” says the at­tendee, who, des­pite work­ing for a rival can­did­ate, gushed that on a scale of 1 to 10, Cruz’s speech was a 14. “He was pitch-per­fect. He got briefed well by his staff. He came in like a law­yer mak­ing his case, ef­fect­ively say­ing, ‘I am the only one who can unite the move­ment.‘“Š”

“Cruz blew every­one else out of the wa­ter,” says a second at­tendee, a CNP or­gan­izer who has not signed on with any of the 2016 con­tenders. “He made the best case, I think, for con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers and or­gan­iz­a­tions to think stra­tegic­ally about work­ing to­geth­er to help pro­pel a con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ate in­to con­ten­tion. “¦ He was savvy enough to un­der­stand what that room wanted to hear. Don’t just come and give us your con­ser­vat­ive speech. Tell us: Why should we should sup­port you? And tell us: What’s your plan to win?”

He urged at­tendees to con­sider two cri­ter­ia in eval­u­at­ing the can­did­ates: “sub­stance” and “strategy.”

Cruz’s speech aimed to sat­is­fy both ques­tions, and with jolt­ing spe­cificity. He urged at­tendees to con­sider two cri­ter­ia in eval­u­at­ing the can­did­ates: “sub­stance” and “strategy.” For the first part of the present­a­tion, Cruz in­vited audi­ence mem­bers to re­call the most sig­ni­fic­ant policy fights of re­cent years—health care, im­mig­ra­tion, for­eign policy, re­li­gious liberty, gun rights, and the debt ceil­ing, among oth­ers—and chal­lenged them to name an­oth­er GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate who had “stood up and led” on all of them. Un­like oth­ers, Cruz ar­gued, “You know where I stand.”

“When I’m with ya, I’m really, really, really with ya,” he said. “It ain’t halfway, it ain’t a little bit, it’s all the way.”

More im­press­ive to the audi­ence, at­tendees say, was the por­tion of Cruz’s speech de­voted to strategy. The Tex­an went in­to tre­mend­ous de­tail to demon­strate his ca­pa­city for ex­ecut­ing a na­tion­al cam­paign. Cruz ar­gued that he has “the three things needed to win.” The first, he said, is grass­roots sup­port; Cruz re­called his in­sur­gent 2012 Sen­ate vic­tory, be­fore ref­er­en­cing the crowds he has drawn in Iowa and New Hamp­shire that “doubled Jeb Bush, doubled Scott Walk­er.” The second ne­ces­sity, he said, is money. He boas­ted not only of rais­ing $4.3 mil­lion in his first week of cam­paign­ing—”double what Mitt Rom­ney raised in his open­ing week in 2012”—but also high­lighted re­ports that his su­per PAC raised $31 mil­lion in its first week. Cruz tied these two points to­geth­er, con­clud­ing: “We have not had a strong, move­ment, grass­roots con­ser­vat­ive with ser­i­ous fun­drais­ing abil­ity since 1980. Ron­ald Re­agan was the last time those two things were com­bined.”

(RE­LATED: Meet the Spouses of 2016 Pres­id­en­tial Con­tenders

The third ele­ment was elect­ab­il­ity. Cruz ar­gued that in look­ing at the GOP field, “there are a lot of people who res­on­ate with one slice or the oth­er,” but nobody with the abil­ity “to bring all three legs of the stool to­geth­er,” ref­er­en­cing so­cial, fisc­al, and na­tion­al se­cur­ity con­ser­vat­ives.

Moreover, Cruz ar­gued, if mod­er­ates truly had more cros­sov­er ap­peal in Novem­ber, “then we’d have Ford Demo­crats, or Dole Demo­crats, or Mc­Cain Demo­crats, or Rom­ney Demo­crats. They don’t ex­ist!”

By the time he’d fin­ished, sev­er­al at­tendees with no ties to any can­did­ate say Cruz had con­vinced some on-the-fence con­ser­vat­ives to side with his camp. He did it, they say, not by preach­ing ideo­lo­gic­al pur­ity—which was already known and ap­pre­ci­ated in the room—but by show­ing a real­ist­ic vis­ion for win­ning the primary.

“We already knew what he be­lieved; we’ve heard him speak a thou­sand times,” says a third at­tendee not af­fil­i­ated with Cruz’s team. “The big takeaway was that he ac­tu­ally knew what the ask was. The oth­ers were just on auto­pi­lot giv­ing their stump speech. “¦ Cruz came in re­cog­niz­ing that they want to unite around one can­did­ate, then pivoted to the ar­gu­ment that he was the can­did­ate they should unite around.”

THERE’S NO MYS­TERY be­hind Cruz’s su­per­i­or un­der­stand­ing of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment and its de­sires. He has long been part of it. Since com­ing to the Sen­ate, he has snatched up some of its most prom­in­ent act­iv­ists, in­clud­ing Paul Tell­er, Cruz’s chief of staff and the long­time ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee be­fore that. And Cruz has spent the last sev­er­al years dog­gedly court­ing the very lead­ers be­hind this ef­fort to “co­alesce.”

It starts at the top with Per­kins. Even be­fore ar­riv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, Cruz had built a re­la­tion­ship with the so­cial-con­ser­vat­ive chief­tain. That court­ship has in­tens­i­fied dra­mat­ic­ally over the last sev­er­al years. (The sen­at­or, known to loathe din­ing alone in Wash­ing­ton, is of­ten in search of din­ner com­pan­ion­ship—and the first call his of­fice typ­ic­ally makes is to Per­kins.) Their al­li­ance is well known in the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment. Per­kins, in an in­ter­view this year, ac­know­ledged that he has spent more one-on-one time with Cruz since 2012 than any of the oth­er Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates.

Cruz also keeps tabs on a host of oth­er in­flu­en­tial act­iv­ists, in­clud­ing Mike Need­ham, CEO of Her­it­age Ac­tion; Dav­id McIn­tosh, pres­id­ent of the Club for Growth; Brent Bozell, chair­man of Fo­rAmer­ica; Ken Cuc­cinelli, pres­id­ent of the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund; and Becky Norton Dun­lop, a Her­it­age Found­a­tion vice pres­id­ent who chairs the Con­ser­vat­ive Ac­tion Pro­ject. All have re­la­tion­ships with Cruz’s team, a real­ity he is ex­ploit­ing at a peri­od of un­rest in the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment to stay a step ahead in the race for this elu­sive col­lect­ive en­dorse­ment—one that Cruz knows might very well nev­er ma­ter­i­al­ize.

In­deed, be­cause of his ties to the move­ment, Cruz un­der­stands just how dif­fi­cult it will be and how in­tense the dis­agree­ments over the is­sue are be­com­ing. The de­bate at CNP spilled over in­to smal­ler, in­vit­a­tion-only meet­ings con­vened by the lead­ers who are in ab­so­lute agree­ment that unit­ing be­hind a single con­ser­vat­ive is ne­ces­sary—Per­kins and Cuc­cinelli among them. At the same time, oth­er act­iv­ists, such as Ral­ph Reed of the Faith and Free­dom Co­ali­tion and Grover Nor­quist of Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form, were telling mem­bers that such an op­er­a­tion rep­res­ents a top-down man­date to their na­tion­al net­work and as such vi­ol­ates their core con­ser­vat­ive philo­sophy.

Still oth­ers simply re­ject the en­tire concept as the blue-skies think­ing of in­di­vidu­als who know more about ideo­lo­gic­al man­dates than cam­paign mech­an­ics. “The con­ser­vat­ive move­ment is ab­so­lutely lack­ing in real polit­ic­al wis­dom and ex­e­cu­tion. These guys are play­ing a game in Sunday School while the oth­er can­did­ates are play­ing Ma­jor League Base­ball,” says a fourth CNP mem­ber, also not linked to any cam­paign. “The Bush fam­ily has run in six of the last nine na­tion­al elec­tions. They have law­yers in every state who know the bal­lot rules. “¦ And we’re wast­ing our time talk­ing about co­ales­cing be­hind one can­did­ate.”

THE DE­BATE WON’T END soon: CNP has sched­uled an­oth­er meet­ing for Oc­to­ber, at the same hotel, to hear from oth­er can­did­ates, such as Walk­er, who couldn’t at­tend the May meet­ing. Some pre­dict the move­ment’s lead­ers by then will be closer to achiev­ing con­sensus and in­sist they’re still aim­ing to settle on a can­did­ate by year’s end. Oth­ers in­sist this group will nev­er settle on a single con­tender and say the best any can­did­ate can hope for is a co­ordin­ated en­dorse­ment from a slice of high-pro­file con­ser­vat­ives.

That’s why Cruz, while mak­ing the hard sell to CNP, has also been court­ing one lead­er at a time, and woo­ing act­iv­ists on a state-by-state basis. His team knows the im­prob­ab­il­ity of unit­ing the move­ment and as such will keep chip­ping away. A re­cent press re­lease from Cruz’s cam­paign de­clared: “New Hamp­shire Con­ser­vat­ives Co­alesce Be­hind Cruz for Pres­id­ent.” It was, they hoped, fore­shad­ow­ing a big­ger an­nounce­ment.

“The men and wo­men in this room, if you de­cide, have it in your ca­pa­city to uni­fy the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment,” Cruz told CNP. “The num­bers are such that if con­ser­vat­ives are united, it’s game over.”

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