BATON ROUGE — Exactly three weeks before Iowans cast the nation’s first presidential votes, Sen. Ted Cruz was asking people for support 1,000 miles to the south.
As most other candidates spent Monday stumping in the cold climes of Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz’s detour to the sunny capital of Cajun country illustrated his belief that the South could tip the scales in the Republican presidential contest.
The Texas Republican views a slate of Southern states that vote from March 1 to March 15 as a “firewall” that could help him secure the nomination even if he doesn’t win all of the earliest four contests.
He has spent much of his campaign pouring money and time into the region: There was a bus tour in August, when his campaign doled out free sweet tea and biscuits and gravy, and a chartered airplane tour in December to several large rallies in states that vote March 1. That day is being labeled “Super Tuesday” or the “SEC Primary” — after the Southeastern Conference in college athletics.
With a condensed primary calendar and a packed race, the South is poised to play a more significant role in the nominating contest than it has in the past.
“We’re military veterans, we’re gun owners, we fear God, and we’re fed up with the Obama administration and the assault on our rights,” Cruz said while standing under a palm tree outside a hotel here. “I believe our campaign is teed up to have an incredible night on Super Tuesday and continue through early March.”
Cruz is the front-runner in Iowa, where he just wrapped up a six-day bus tour around the state.
His team believes that if he does well coming out of the first four voting contests, winning a slate of states across the South will solidify his momentum. The campaign has shored up leadership teams in the South, deployed thousands of volunteers throughout the region and sent the candidate himself often. He has held nearly a quarter of his campaign events in the South, according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune.
The campaign sees the South, with its heavy concentration of evangelical Christians and conservatives, as a natural fit.
Cruz has focused heavily on courting religious voters. He launched his campaign at Liberty University, founded by the fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell, and has met with religious leaders and held rallies at churches and religious institutions throughout the region. The biggest was at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., in November.
“Awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from this abyss,” Cruz said to a rowdy audience in a packed hotel ballroom here.
Many yelled, “Amen!”
Cruz is also appealing to tea partyers and anti-establishment types, talking about small government and touting the support of people such as Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a controversial Republican who lost to longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, also a Republican, in a 2014 U.S. Senate runoff race.
There is another reason Cruz has spent so much time in the South: delegates.
Apart from the flashy rallies he’s been holding in this region, the Texas Republican’s campaign is focused on the nitty-gritty grunt work of campaigns: shoring up ballot access and securing the support of delegates to the Republican National Convention in July who will choose the nominee. Cruz’s campaign has dispatched surrogates to places as far off as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam to corral delegate support, but the South is key to his strategy, and he hopes to lock up as many delegates as he can in the region and his home state of Texas, which votes March 15.
Here in Louisiana, which votes March 5, Cruz’s team sees an opening with former governor Bobby Jindal (R) having dropped out of the presidential race.
Cruz’s rally was held just a few hours after the inauguration of Jindal’s successor, John Bel Edwards (D). In addition to his public rally, Cruz is holding a number of closed-door fundraisers throughout the state. Keep the Promise PAC, an umbrella group supporting Cruz, is also pouring resources into the state, deploying 19 staff members.
Cruz said the campaign has more than 2,000 volunteers statewide.
“It’s an open state now that Jindal’s out,” said a Cruz aide. “We’re eager to play. It’s a neighbor, and there are a lot of financial resources that are out there.”
Cruz tried to sample the local flavor, telling people that his mother attended high school in Baton Rouge and his father applied to Louisiana State University.
“God bless the great state of Louisiana,” Cruz said, using his standard rally greeting that changes only in the name of the state.
“Cruz country!” a man yelled as the people in the packed ballroom here cheered.
“Louisiana’s primary is going to matter this year,” Cruz said, noting that the voting starts, as it always does, with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. (Cruz is scheduled to spend the rest of this week in New Hampshire and South Carolina.)
“Then, boom, 10 days after South Carolina is Super Tuesday,” he said. Then Louisiana.
“Commit today to come out March 5 and vote in the primary for us to win,” he said.