SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — The crowd to see Sen. Ted Cruz spilled across the Dordt College student center, filling every inch of floor space and crawling up two stairways. A little more than 7,000 people live in the city; at least 700 had crammed into the building. Grinning and thanking God, Rep. Steve King imagined what caucus night could be like if they and their neighbors turned out — really, really turned out.
“I want to build an America that looks like Sioux County looks,” said King (R-Iowa). “Do what Sioux County does and direct the destiny of the caucuses. You know you offset other parts of the state. Please, do that again.”
In 2008 and 2012, the conservative northwest counties of Iowa helped push like-minded Republicans to caucus wins — but past Iowa, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum petered out.
This year, many voters in Sioux County are saying they have a candidate in Cruz (R-Tex.) who shares their views — and who, critically, has a campaign and resources to do more than win northwest Iowa, more than send the fruitless messages of past years to the national GOP. They think he could win the Republican nomination. And they are all the more emboldened that it is the establishment this year that has not been able to pick a front-runner.
“I love it,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the evangelical organizer who chaired Huckabee’s campaign in 2008, endorsed Santorum in 2012, then led colleagues at his Iowa Family Leader organization in an early endorsement of Cruz for 2016. “They have the problem on their side that we’d had the last two cycles on our side. We had to rely so much on organic turnout with Huckabee and Santorum because we just didn’t have the funding. This campaign has both the campaign resources and that organic support.”
Huckabee’s Sioux County landslide in 2008 helped him demolish Mitt Romney. Santorum won the county four years later by 644 votes; he won statewide, after a recount, by just 34.
In those years, these Dutch-settled towns, where unemployment sank below 2 percent and church pews filled twice on Sundays, had prayed that the GOP would stick with a such a candidate all the way to the nomination. GOP voters had politely declined.
Cruz has promised to break that cycle. In 2015, when he wooed social conservatives, he frequently reminded them of how Santorum and Huckabee — and before that, Sioux County winners Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan — won early then lost to a united establishment.
“D.C. knows if we’re divided, then the moderate Washington candidate with all the money comes right through and wins the nomination with 26 percent of the vote,” he told conservatives who gathered for a closed-door meeting in Northern Virginia last May.
In interviews here, the people tasked to win the caucuses for Cruz described how he made that pitch and sold himself as the conservative last man standing. Inside his Hull, Iowa, office, across the street from the first Pizza Ranch, state Sen. Randy Feenstra described his own search for a conservative who could win. On one wall of the office hung photos of Feenstra with George W. Bush; on another was a quote from the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper: “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin.”
The battle did not go so well for Feenstra. It took him to Tim Pawlenty in the 2012 race and Scott Walker in this one — both were early dropouts.
“My record stinks,” he said.
Walker’s exit led to calls from every campaign, “which was pretty neat,” but it was Cruz who persuaded him to be a campaign co-chair in Sioux County.
“He just — how do I say it? — has all the tools,” Feenstra said. “It’s different from the past. I jumped on because I looked at him as someone who could win Iowa then the general election.”
One of the tools was money, and Cruz was not shy about that. By launching before any other presidential candidate, Cruz set a goal of dominating early fundraising — and then he talked about it. “Do you know which candidate raised the most money out of all 16?” he asked Rush Limbaugh in July. “We did.” (He did, not including independent super PACs).
As he did in his stymied 2010 run for attorney general and his 2012 run for Senate, Cruz piled up cash to scare other conservatives out of the race. Huckabee and Santorum did not quit — both are running again in 2016. But some of their key staffers switched sides. In Sioux Center, and on other stops of his northwest-Iowa tour, Cruz was joined by former Iowa secretary of state Matt Schultz, Santorum’s 2012 campaign chair, who explained to reporters why Cruz’s campaign was “like nothing we’ve seen before.” He was joined anew by Alice Stewart, a former spokeswoman for both Huckabee and Santorum, who explained why the campaign’s resources could lock in Iowa.
“We can launch an air, land and sea assault,” Stewart said as the candidate shook hands and submitted to selfies.
Huckabee and Santorum have fired on Cruz, with Huckabee insisting that a tape of Cruz telling a donor that ending gay marriage was not a “top three” priority in a time of war is proof that Iowa’s conservatives are guzzling snake oil.
“I’m going to be the same whether I’m in Marshalltown, Iowa, or Manhattan,” Huckabee said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Tuesday as he pushed through his own, lower-profile Iowa bus tour. “I don’t wake up every day with a new conviction based on the polls.”
Huckabee had been saying that for weeks, though — and Cruz had made the sale months before. Mick Snieder, a banker and former city councilman in bucolic Orange City, had balked at getting too involved in 2016. Then, the morning of the dual Supreme Court decisions that legalized gay marriage and prevented a major disruption of the Affordable Care Act, he heard Cruz speak in nearby Sheldon.
“Just about every Republican put out a statement condemning it, and a whole lot of those Republicans are celebrating those decisions,” Cruz said. “They’re popping champagne. Obamacare? They didn’t want to deal with it. And they’re thrilled with the gay-marriage decision.”
Snieder signed on right away. Other Cruz organizers had similar stories — all could describe exactly why this candidate, finally, could win after Iowa. Cruz’s theory that a resolute conservative could turn out more voters than a “moderate” made absolute sense.
“After Santorum lost, I did notice people not as excited about going to the polls,” Snieder recalled. “I remember asking a co-worker who he was going to support. He said his son was telling him, ‘Just hold your nose and vote for Romney,’ so he guessed he had to.”
Conservatives like Snieder came to trust Cruz, and the old caucus winners simply couldn’t buy into the argument. At the end of the third fundraising quarter, Santorum and Huckabee had raised just $1.1 million and $3.3 million, respectively, compared with Cruz’s $26.6 million. As of early January, the only negative Cruz spot people were likely to hear was a radio ad from a pro-Huckabee super PAC, replaying the Cruz gay-marriage answer.
Still, Cruz was using the ends of his speeches to warn people that “millions of dollars in TV ads, radio ads and mailers” were coming, many targeted at him, all of them false.
“Those mailers make really good kindling in the fireplace,” Cruz said in Sioux Center. “They light up fast.”
After Cruz’s events, social conservatives were aware of the risk if they quit on Cruz.
“Ben Carson is not a leader. He’s too soft-spoken,” said Al Teslaw, 81, a soybean farmer. “I think Huckabee and Santorum have sort of fallen away.”
In Sioux Center, before Cruz boarded the bus with his endorsers, King stuck around to explain the candidate’s thornier positions. There had been a question about ethanol policy. It was skeptical, but to King’s delight it was no dealbreaker.
“The other candidates have drifted away in the polling,” King said matter-of-factly. “Everybody knows what they have to do.”