Steve King started Wednesday morning by doing two of his favorite things: sipping piping-hot coffee and listening to Ted Cruz.
The senator from Texas was a guest of the Conservative Opportunity Society, a decades-old organization of House conservatives that meets weekly. King, an Iowa Republican and the society’s chairman, had hosted Cruz at previous such meetings, but this session was particularly significant. Over plates of biscuits and gravy and scrambled eggs, Cruz led a discussion of legislative options to retaliate against President Obama’s recent executive actions shielding millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.
A few hours later, Cruz and King were together again. When King convened a press conference on the U.S. Capitol lawn to protest Obama’s actions, Cruz stood proudly behind him. Once at the microphone, Cruz urged congressional Republicans to starve the government of funding needed to execute Obama’s “lawless” order. When an audience member yelled out to Cruz to run for president in 2016, he smiled broadly. And so did King.
The renewed debate over immigration brought Cruz and King together on this particular day. But such collaboration between the two lawmakers is hardly new. Over the past two years, Cruz and King have quietly forged a personal friendship and powerful political alliance—one that helped derail immigration reform in the 113th Congress and that could give Cruz a critical boost in the 2016 presidential race.
Recently elected to his seventh term, King is beloved by Iowa’s conservative community and wields considerable influence in the early nominating state. His endorsement, as in past presidential cycles, will be among the most sought-after in Iowa ahead of the state’s January 2016 caucuses.
When Cruz came to Washington in January 2013, he and King were unacquainted. Quickly, however, they become steadfast allies and regular collaborators. Their staffs are in constant communication. They meet regularly to discuss strategy and brief one another on activity in their respective chambers. They once shared a five-hour steak dinner, discussing Constitutional restraint well after the lights had been shut off at the Capital Grille. And they have spent significant time together in Iowa, home to the first presidential nominating contest in 2016—a state where King’s blessing could legitimize Cruz’s run for the White House.
“He fits this thing very well,” King said of Cruz’s presidential aspirations.
King said in an interview he hasn’t decided whether to endorse in 2016. But those close to the congressman suggest that after sitting out the 2012 cycle, he’s itching to influence the upcoming presidential campaign.
“He’s had close friends run for president before—Duncan Hunter and Michele Bachmann—and chose not to endorse them when they ran,” said Steve Deace, an Iowa radio host and conservative activist who has known King for years. “If you can’t show you’re going to be a viable candidate, he will not put his political capital behind you.”
King learned that lesson after endorsing Fred Thompson’s doomed candidacy in 2008, and according to Deace and others, has since determined that ideological affinity isn’t enough. For someone to earn his endorsement in 2016, the candidate must meet King’s policy requirements—tough on immigration, outspoken on social issues, and hawkish on fiscal policy—while showing an ability to actually win the GOP nomination.
“Cruz meets every single one of those check marks for Steve King,” Deace said. “He didn’t use his political capital in 2012, and he may never again get this opportunity to get a true movement conservative as the nominee of his party. So I wouldn’t be surprised at all if King felt that this is the Iowa caucus cycle where he’s going to go all-in.”
King, for his part, did not reject that idea: “If you’ve earned some political capital,” King said, “it’s wise to use it for a good cause.”
Turning the Tide in Congress’s Immigration Fight
In June of 2013, Steve King felt the fight slipping away from him.
The Iowan, an immigration hard-liner, knew the Senate was poised to approve a comprehensive bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. King saw momentum on the reformers’ side, and understood that House Republicans would face pressure to pass that Senate bill. So he pulled out the stops, staging a rally outside the Capitol that featured fiery “anti-amnesty” speeches from more than a dozen of King’s fellow House Republicans.
But it was the lone senator in attendance who stole the show: Ted Cruz. With thousands of conservative activists swelling around a makeshift podium, Cruz whipped them into a frenzy. “There’s no greater advocate for legal immigration than I am,” he said. “But the rule of law matters. Secure borders matter. The Constitution matters!”
The Senate bill passed a week later, but King’s event had helped shift the momentum across the Capitol.
The House never wound up voting on the comprehensive package. Immigration reform would not happen in the 113th Congress. And to this day King credits Cruz for “sticking his neck out” and helping King—someone whose harsh rhetoric could imperil any presidential hopeful who associates with it.
“Ted Cruz came over from the Senate and took the stage—and he commanded the stage,” King recalled. “That showed a fearless courage, and a conviction to principle, without being restrained by having to go through a political calculus first.”
King first met and observed Cruz six months earlier at an event in Washington where Cruz gave the keynote address soon after being sworn in. The congressman listened keenly to the new senator, and came away convinced that he hadn’t heard a better articulation of conservative values “in more than 20 years.”
Still, it wasn’t until the June immigration rally that Cruz and King connected—and began coordinating—on a deeper level. In the summer months they began meeting regularly one-on-one. Their staffs began briefing one another on strategy. And when Cruz broadened that effort to begin hosting regular meetings with a gaggle of House Republicans, King was often the first to arrive.
In October, not long after the government reopened after a shutdown that Cruz had helped provoke, the senator received a coveted invitation. King asked him to come pheasant hunting in Iowa and speak at a GOP fundraiser. Cruz accepted, and on the day of their hunt, with King seated in the front row of a small reception room, the senator lay bare his affection.
“Let me tell you something about your congressman,” Cruz told the audience of King’s constituents. “There are lots of things you know about him. You know he’s principled. You know he speaks the truth. Let me tell you the most important characteristic about Steve King: It’s that he is utterly fearless. And that, I promise you, is a very rare commodity on Capitol Hill.”
King couldn’t help but return the favor a few months later, in March of this year, when Cruz came back to Iowa for a homeschoolers’ event. King, introducing Cruz, told the crowd: “He has described me as fearless, but I will tell you: Ted Cruz is fearless.”
The depth of mutual admiration was notable. But it was another remark from King that arched eyebrows in the room. After a breathless summation of Cruz’s legal acumen, and his ability to argue cases in front of the Supreme Court, King stopped himself. “That takes a really nimble person,” the congressman said. “Somebody who can do that is somebody who can run this country.”
The Odd and Influential Political Couple
At first glance they would seem to have little in common. King is a 65-year-old Catholic from “the heart of the heartland” who started a construction company after attending but not graduating from Northwest Missouri State University; Cruz is a 43-year-old Southern evangelical who argued cases in front of the Supreme Court after earning degrees from Princeton and Harvard.
But according to their mutual allies, Cruz and King are bound together by dynamics more potent—specifically their ultraconservative ideology and appetite for conflict. Moreover, friends say the two men have bonded over their shared resentment at being ostracized—even within their own party—for their views.
“They’re both guys who in view of their strongly held positions have had to develop thick skin,” said Robert George, the conservative leader and Princeton professor who taught Cruz two decades ago.
As it happens, George was seated next to King at that dinner last January when the congressman first heard Cruz speak. George said that while the lawmakers are “very different men,” he’s not surprised at their blossoming relationship.
“They have some common experiences, especially in developing the thick skin and strength of character to stand by your convictions even when you’re being unfairly caricatured and misrepresented,” George said. “Those kinds of experiences do create bonds between people.”
Their bond will be on display in January, when Cruz joins a handful of other 2016 hopefuls in attending King’s newly established Iowa Freedom Summit. The event is expected to focus heavily on immigration—a topic better-tailored to Cruz than some other attendees, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
It will represent an early test of Cruz’s ability to compete in the first nominating state against established caucus winners. Cruz allies acknowledge that his path to the Republican nomination runs through Iowa. But while he’s proven himself a master orator in court and on the Senate floor, it’s unknown whether those skills will translate to a state dominated by grassroots activists who prefer intimate engagement and salt-of-the-earth politicians.
Fortunately for Cruz, his friend King has some advice.
“I’ve heard people say that Ivy League education maybe puts some kind of veneer on him that doesn’t let him be as human as he needs to be,” King said. “I don’t see that. But if I were going to give him some kind of counsel, I’d say just pay attention, because that’s the potential place where some criticism could come from and where you’re slightly vulnerable.”
Cruz has already begun chipping away at his elitist image. He surprised King and his friends last year by expertly wielding a shotgun at the Iowa pheasant hunt. As King and Cruz walked through a field together that day, talking apolitically and feeling one another out, something happened.
“In front us about 20 yards, a rooster pheasant got up and flew straight away,” King said. “So there, in the middle of the conversation, both of us popped our guns to our shoulders and shot simultaneously—as if it were one bang.”
He paused, relishing the metaphorical implication of firing side-by-side with Cruz. “That pheasant,” King said, “folded in a cloud of feathers.”