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.
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.”
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.”