First in a series of reports on the chief presidential contenders in Texas’ March 1 primary.
When he embarked on his race for the U.S. Senate just over five years ago, Ted Cruz knew that the odds were stacked against him.
He was registering about 2 percent in the polls and was up against a field of Republican competitors dominated by one of the state’s most powerful and wealthy political figures, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Now, as a nationally known senator and top-tier GOP presidential contender, Cruz is borrowing heavily from the playbook that he used to transform himself from unknown underdog into an odds-defying giant-slayer. The Tea Party-infused insurgency that Cruz unleashed to trounce Dewhurst in the 2012 Republican runoff also figures significantly in his hopes of winning the Republican nomination and ultimately becoming president.
Cruz’s immediate focus — like that of every other candidate — is trained on the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and other early states, but a subsequent victory in his home state of Texas — where he is considered a favorite son now that former Gov. Rick Perry is out of the race — is considered crucial to his overall bid for the GOP nomination.
Unlike elections in the past several decades, the earlier-than-usual March 1 Texas primary is expected to be influential in determining the nominees in both parties. The second-largest state not only offers one of the biggest batches of Republican delegates — 155 — but it also dominates the Super Tuesday contests being held in at least a dozen predominantly Southern states.
Hundreds of Tea Party leaders and other grassroots activists from Texas — many of them veterans from Cruz’s Senate campaign — are trooping to Iowa as part of a “Cruz Texas Strike Force” to identify and recruit voters for the Feb. 1 caucuses, often staying in a former university dorm nicknamed “Camp Cruz.”
Tyler Norris, director of the Cruz campaign in Texas and a former aide to state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville, said the campaign plans to replicate the strike forces in other early states and then dispatch “a ton of grassroots support” in Texas and the South when the nominating contest reaches Super Tuesday.
“It’s the same thing as what we did in 2012,” said Norris, who was also a Cruz aide in the Senate race. “It’s a grassroots, ground-up campaign, and what that looks like is garnering support at the local level all over the state.”
In recent weeks, Cruz has vaulted out of the middle of the pack to threaten front-runner Donald Trump, and a Texas-size victory in his home state could help jet-propel his candidacy if he does well in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Or, if he flounders in the early states, it could offer refuge as a much-needed firewall.
“I think on the ground in Texas, he's very strong and he’s got to be seen as a favorite to win his home state,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “Obviously this primary is going to be really competitive and turnout is going to be very high. Texas has been the linchpin of his strategy all along.”
Since emerging as a national figure with his Senate victory, Cruz has consistently been the favored 2016 presidential candidate in polling among Texas Republicans — sometimes overwhelmingly — but Trump is clearly making strong inroads. The last poll by The Texas Tribune and Henson’s Texas Politics Project, in November, showed the two candidates tied in first place at 27 percent.
Cruz’s home-field advantage is reflected in his robust fundraising. More than $9.16 million of the $26.4 million he has raised nationally has come from Texas, nearly three times the $3.6 million raised by Democrat Hillary Clinton in Texas and more than the combined Texas total of 16 other GOP candidates, including Perry and others who have left the race.
One of the leaders in Cruz’s Texas effort is Burton, who was an early activist for Cruz in the Senate race and later won a coveted Cruz endorsement in her winning race for the state Senate in 2014. She recently returned from Iowa as a participant in the Cruz strike force.
Before plunging into elective politics herself, Burton was a “stay-at-home mom” in Colleyville who became a Tea Party leader to vent her frustration over government growth under both parties.
When Cruz began building his candidacy for the Senate, Burton and other grassroots activists began flocking behind his message of limited government, less taxes and individual liberty, ultimately becoming a formidable legion of disciplined, politically savvy volunteers who block-walked, made calls, wielded signs and fired off emails to boost his candidacy.
Cruz recognized the potential of Tea Party power from the outset of his campaign, insiders recall, going across the state to huddle with local Tea Party leaders and other conservative activists in venues such as IHOP and Denny’s, sometimes in groups no larger than five or six.
At the same time, Cruz has also drawn hefty campaign dollars and support from across the state’s deeply conservative Republican firmament, including Houston’s C Club, a group of prominent businessmen who narrowly endorsed him over Dewhurst in 2012.
“If he was popular only with Tea Party Republicans, he would not have won that race,” said Henson. “It’s a mistake to think that Cruz only appeals to the Tea Party.”
‘A new order’
Nevertheless, Cruz’s political persona — an anti-establishment outsider who often confronts party leaders and Senate tradition in Washington — is heavily identified with Tea Party dissent and has energized conservative activists who form an aggressive and muscular front line in his political base.
“He’s created a new order, if you will,” Austin lobbyist Bill Miller said.
“He’s not only awakened this sleeping discontent in conservative Texas Republican circles but he’s given them the confidence to win elections and change the political landscape.”
Early 2016 primary and caucus schedule
Feb. 1: Iowa
Feb. 9: New Hampshire
Feb. 20: Nevada Democrats, South Carolina Republicans, Washington Republicans
Feb. 23: Nevada Republicans
Feb. 27: South Carolina Democrats
March 1: Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota Republicans, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming Republicans
Ted Cruz at a glance
Born: Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz in Calgary, Alberta
Father, Cuban refugee, mother, American citizen
Grew up: Houston
Education: Princeton University, undergraduate, 1992
Harvard Law School, 1995
Family: Married: wife, Heidi, investment banker for Goldman Sachs; two daughters
Religion: Southern Baptist
Law clerk to Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist
Private practice, 1997-98
George W. Bush campaign, 1999-2000
Bush administration, Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission, 2001-03
Texas solicitor general, 2003-08
Private practice, 2008-13