DES MOINES, Iowa — There’s a message that Ted Cruz is hearing loud and clear from Republicans as he visits the early presidential states: no more moderates.
No Mitt Romneys. No John McCains. The next GOP nominee for the White House must be from the party’s right flank, an unalloyed conservative — a candidate like Ted Cruz.
“What happened in 2008 and what happened in 2012 with the failure of Christian conservatives to coalesce around a single candidate has taught us a lesson: the candidate they want least will end up getting the nomination,” said Jamie Johnson, an Iowa pastor and member of the state Republican central committee.
The freshman Texas senator’s foray into early primary and caucus country — South Carolina earlier this year, Iowa this month and New Hampshire next month — puts the deep division within the GOP between mainstream and tea party factions in a bright light.
Establishment forces warn that the GOP should temper its tone and become more inclusive or risk alienating women and a growing population of Hispanics. But grass-roots activists are pressing the party to move farther right and to reflect uncompromising conservatism.
Just seven months into his term, Cruz has emerged as a national model for those in the GOP who want the party to give full voice to the instincts of the base. On the issues they care about — gun rights, immigration, the 2010 health care law — Cruz does not compromise.
TAKING THE HARD-LINE APPROACH
“If you look at the last 40 years, a constant pattern emerges,” Cruz told ABC. “Anytime Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”
Two weeks ago, in a closed-door gathering of Christian conservatives at a Des Moines hotel, Cruz quoted Scripture and preached small government for nearly an hour, pacing the stage with an ecclesiastical flair. Pastors laid hands on Cruz in prayer for him and the direction of the party.
Cecil Stinemetz of Grace West Church in Des Moines said afterward that Cruz should run for president in 2016.
“I shudder to think if they give us another Romney or another McCain. I’ll admit, I voted for both men. But I didn’t go out and get my neighbors and talk to people and really support them,” he said. “But a groundswell could get behind” Cruz.
Influential Iowa religious conservative leader Bob Van der Plaats wrote on Twitter, from inside the ballroom: “If Senator Cruz continues communicating and leading as he currently is, the 2016 field will narrow quickly.”
After election defeats in 2012, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the party’s future success depends on broadening its appeal and reflecting greater tolerance for different views. That’s not the message Cruz took from his Senate victory last year.
Cruz and fellow tea party adherents have positioned themselves on one side of the GOP divide, refusing to budge on gun rights and opposing a bipartisan approach to immigration. To block the federal health care law, he advocates shutting down the government.
Hard-core Iowa Republicans seem to love the message. But they have a mixed history picking Republican presidential nominees. White, evangelical, born-again Christians made up nearly 60 percent of GOP caucus-goers, according to exit polls.
George W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses in 2000, but former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were the winners in 2008 and 2012.
Johnson, who pastors Christ Church in Story City, was Santorum’s state coalition director last year. He says a big reason an uncompromising conservative hasn’t gone on to win the Republican nomination is that evangelicals haven’t consolidated around a single candidate.
If they don’t this time, Johnson warned, “we would be looking at a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie or a Scott Walker or a Marco Rubio nomination, which would be disastrous.”
Bush, the former Florida governor, and Christie, the New Jersey chief executive, are considered too moderate by many Christian conservatives and tea party activists. Florida Sen. Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Walker are supporting a bipartisan approach to immigration including a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.
PROUD TO BE CALLED A ‘WACKO BIRD’
Into the conflicting currents pulling the Republican Party in opposite directions comes Cruz. He’s an unapologetic critic of the bipartisan immigration bill. He has rubbed fellow Republicans the wrong way by calling those open to compromise on gun legislation “a bunch of squishes.”
Cruz made his first trip to Iowa this month. At a state GOP picnic of pork sandwiches and lemonade, Cruz declared himself proud be called a “wacko bird” by McCain for his unyielding adherence to the tea party.
Sam Clovis of Sioux City said he liked the Texan’s direct, nuance-free style.
“I don’t think Ted Cruz is pandering to anyone,” Clovis said.
Cruz’s style has some Republicans concerned that he’d lead the party into electoral oblivion, particularly with the tough stance on immigration that could alienate Hispanic voters. Others have expressed concern about a candidate with so little experience — the very thing many Republicans lamented about Barack Obama in 2008.
But his skill on the campaign trail is drawing attention. Even when Cruz hedges an answer, it doesn’t sound like it. When an Iowa Republican at the fundraiser declared that the U.S. has become “a police state” that spies on its citizens, Cruz paused and put on a thoughtful face.
“We need to be vigorous in protecting the national security of the United States, and that means finding and stopping radical Islamic terrorists,” Cruz said. “At the same time, we need to protect the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. And both of them are possible and serve the same end.”
It was a political answer, landing on both sides at once. But it was delivered with a rhetorical skill first evinced at Princeton, where he was a champion debater. Cruz was equally equivocal on whether he has his sights on the presidency in 2016, dismissing such talk as premature.
A veteran Iowa radio reporter asked Cruz when he’d be back in Iowa.
It was a question about more than scheduling. Politicians who don’t know when they’ll be back are just visitors, but those who are serious presidential hopefuls know exactly when they’re returning.
Cruz, without hesitation, noted that he’ll be back in August to address a conservative group.