Sen. Ted Cruz, who has assiduously courted evangelicals throughout his presidential run, will take a lead role in the launch this week of an ambitious 50-state campaign to end taxpayer support for Planned Parenthood — a move that is likely to give the GOP candidate a major primary-season boost in the fierce battle for social-conservative and evangelical voters.
More than 100,000 pastors received e-mail invitations over the weekend to participate in conference calls with Cruz on Tuesday in which they will learn details of the plan to mobilize churchgoers in every congressional district beginning Aug. 30. The requests were sent on the heels of the Texas Republican’s “Rally for Religious Liberty,” which drew 2,500 people to a Des Moines ballroom Friday.
“The recent exposure of Planned Parenthood’s barbaric practices . . . has brought about a pressing need to end taxpayer support of this institution,” Cruz said in the e-mail call to action distributed by the American Renewal Project, an organization of conservative pastors.
The push comes as Cruz seeks to grab a decisive edge in a crowded primary-within-a-primary, with half a dozen GOP contenders battling for what he has referred to as “the evangelical bracket.”
Roughly 1 in 4 voters have identified themselves as evangelical in exit polls from the 2004 campaign on. In key Republican contests such as Iowa, and in some of the Southern states that Cruz has said are critical to his run, that figure was higher during the last presidential campaign — nearly 50 percent.
Cruz has consistently pointed to his ability to motivate and mobilize those voters as a key element of his 2016 strategy. Earlier this summer, he said repeatedly that his main bases of support were tea party voters — and religious conservatives.
“I think my natural second bracket is the evangelical bracket,’’ he told the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C. He ticked off the rivals he viewed as his competition for that demographic: There was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whom he described as “likable . . . affable . . . a Southern Baptist minister,” along with former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and neurologist Ben Carson. “I think at the end of the day, Huckabee and I come out of that bracket neck and neck,” he predicted.
Heading into the primary season, it wasn’t clear how significant a role social issues would play in the selection of the Republican nominee. But social conservatives and evangelical voters say they have been galvanized by a one-two punch this summer: first, the Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex marriage should be legal in all 50 states — and then, the release of hidden-camera videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the donation of fetal tissue in a seemingly cavalier fashion.
All of the Republican candidates have found themselves spending more trail time on both issues over the past few months. Those fighting most fiercely for religious voters have made them central to their campaigns. But few candidates have made the burgeoning “religious liberty” movement in opposition to same-sex marriage and the fight to deny funding to Planned Parenthood as much of their campaign centerpiece as Cruz has — and perhaps no one is as well positioned to benefit politically from a renewed focus on those issues.
On the campaign trail, Cruz has urged people to watch the controversial Planned Parenthood videos and has repeatedly attacked the Supreme Court, where he once served as a law clerk. In an op-ed in USA Today on Thursday, Cruz wrote that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) shouldn’t schedule or allow any legislation to be heard that would give federal money to Planned Parenthood.
Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have each proposed defunding Planned Parenthood and suggested that they would let the government shut down before yielding. Any shutdown would be the fault of Democrats, who would have to be “willing to try to shut down the government in order to force continued taxpayer funding from an organization that has now been caught on film apparently admitting to multiple felonies,” Cruz, who shot to conservative stardom when he led an effort to shut down the government over funding for the Affordable Care Act, told reporters earlier this month.
At his religious liberty-themed rally in Des Moines on Friday night, Cruz cast himself as the only choice for evangelical voters. There is a “war on faith,” he said, as he quoted scripture and paced the stage like a televangelist; evangelical voters will “stay home no longer.”
In the Iowa ballroom that night, Cruz interviewed Dick and Betty Odgaard, an Iowa Mennonite couple who became icons in the religious liberty movement after they refused to hold a same-sex wedding at their events space, which has since closed; he held Betty Odgaard’s hand as she cried and recounted how the couple felt they could not hold a same-sex marriage because it violated their religious beliefs. The couple was sued and later closed their business. In a setting that was part church service, part talk show, he called to the stage other “heroes” who said their religious liberty had been violated, including an Oregon couple who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and a former Atlanta fire chief who said he was fired after releasing a self-published book in which he wrote that homosexuality was a “perversion” and morally equivalent to “pederasty” and “bestiality.”
And he recounted his legal experience winning religious liberty cases, such as his fight as Texas solicitor general to keep a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol, decided by a 5-4 Supreme Court margin. The high court, he argued, is one justice away from taking down all images of God.
“Is the next victim of persecution your pastor?” Cruz asked the crowd. “Your charity, where you volunteer your time at a crisis pregnancy center?”
Cruz’s Iowa campaign chairman, Matt Schultz, suggested that Cruz was divinely chosen to lead.
“We’re at a crossroads in our country,” Schultz told the crowd. “Ted Cruz is the man who God has prepared for this moment in time to be our champion, to fight for our husbands, our wives, our children and our grandchildren, for our country.”
The message resonated with undecided voters on hand, such as Jerry Miller, 65, of West Des Moines, who said the country needs a president who will put faith at the fore — a president like Cruz. “We need to put this country back to what it was founded on, Judeo-Christian values,” he said.
Cruz drew some of his loudest cheers when he took on Planned Parenthood. “Innocent life should not be treated as a business transaction,” he said, repeating a pledge that, if elected president, he would instruct the Justice Department to investigate and potentially prosecute the organization.
In the e-mail sent to pastors this weekend, Cruz asked individuals to take on the organization on another front. “I am urging you to confront this evil in our nation by praying and preaching with an unbridled passion until funding for Planned Parenthood ends, and this barbaric practice is purged from the land,” Cruz wrote in his message.
Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president, Dawn Laguens, expressed concern about the latest push, Cruz’s role and the portrayal of her organization in the videos, produced and distributed in recent weeks by an antiabortion group called the Center for Medical Progress.
“From the beginning, this relentless campaign has been about one thing: antiabortion extremists who will do anything — lie, twist facts, villainize providers, and even reportedly break the law — in their quest to ban abortion and block millions from accessing basic reproductive health care,” she said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Ted Cruz is pushing the Republican party into territory that’s further and further away from what the majority of American voters believe.”
The latest salvo against the group is being organized by some of the Christian conservative movement’s best-known strategists, including three who helped lead a successful effort to recall state Supreme Court judges in Iowa in 2010 after the jurists ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
“This is tremendously larger than what happened in Iowa,” said David Carney, a Republican strategist who worked on that recall effort with David Lane, who leads the American Renewal Project, a group sponsoring this week’s pastor outreach effort. The two are joined by Wayne Hamilton, a Texas-based organizer who has worked in the past with Perry and was campaign manager in 2014 for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R). The effort appears to be funded through American Renewal, which officials said spent about $10 million supporting candidates in 2014 and is considered likely to spend $15 million or more this year organizing opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
In addition, religious broadcast organizations have pledged to air public service spots urging Christian viewers to contact their members of Congress. Carney said the effort has received commitments of support from the Bott Radio Network, which has 100 Christian radio stations in the Midwest, and from American Family Radio, which owns 190 Christian radio stations in 20 states as well as national religious-television broadcasters.
The Tuesday conference calls with pastors will begin with a message from Cruz, who will be followed on the call by Doug Stringer, a pastor who works with American Renewal and Response USA to plan statewide prayer rallies at the request of conservative governors such as Jindal and Perry.
Cruz’s campaign believes that, more than that of any other candidate in the race, it has the grass-roots infrastructure in place to harness the support of conservatives, evangelicals and insurgent voters nationwide — and the resources to translate that support into votes as Huckabee’s poll numbers sag and the surging Carson continues to lack the fundraising muscle to take advantage of his late-summer momentum.
The latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show Cruz trailing only former Florida governor Jeb Bush in fundraising — ahead of Paul, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Through June, Cruz had raised $14 million through his campaign committee and another $37 million through a constellation of super PACs set up to aid his campaign.
Cruz’s campaign has spent the past few months mobilizing his base, assembling coalitions and courting activists on the ground in Iowa and elsewhere. The candidate spent mid-August on a 20-stop, seven-day bus tour across the South that included events at multiple churches, and his campaign announced Friday that it intends to have a pastor doing faith outreach in all 99 of Iowa’s counties. Cruz’s father Rafael, a pastor, has been traveling the country all year speaking to voters of faith. Now, that effort will be broadcast nationwide.
“You wonder why we have a federal government that comes after our free-speech rights, that comes after our religious liberty, that comes after life, that comes after marriage, that comes after our values,” Cruz said Friday, blaming that state of affairs again on the 54 million evangelicals who stayed home during the
2012 presidential election.
“I’m here to tell you,” Cruz said, “we will stay home no longer.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Planned Parenthood officials were videotaped discussing the sale of fetal tissue. They were discussing the donation of such tissue; officials with the group say it does not sell fetal tissue. This version has been corrected.