Ted Cruz’s Secret Weapon in 2016: Steve King

The Iowa Republican’s endorsement will be highly coveted, and Cruz has the inside track to claim it.

Steve King is a close ally of Ted Cruz, and that could pay off huge for the Senator in 2016.
National Journal
Dec. 3, 2014, 4:34 p.m.

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.”

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