Friday night in rural northwest Iowa is as picturesque as American politics gets. Half the town of Pierson is sprawled across the outfield grass of a Little League ballpark, eating pork sandwiches and cupcakes as a country band plays atop a flatbed crowded with hay bales. As the sun begins to dip into the surrounding cornfields, Ted Cruz climbs onto the stage to make his pitch for the presidency.
The centerpiece of Cruz’s stump speech these days is a denunciation of what the Texas Republican calls the “Washington cartel.” This is the Senator’s term for the alliance of powerful interests and pliable politicians who, he says, conspire to control the country at the expense of the people. K Street lobbyists are a big part of Cruz’s cartel. So are big corporations, career politicians, the liberal media and the leaders of both parties. The newest members are the apostates on the Supreme Court, whose back-to-back rulings on Obamacare and same-sex marriage Cruz condemned at each stop on his most recent two-day swing through Iowa.
Cruz is known as a bomb thrower, and his most trip to Iowa illustrated why. He ripped rivals for the 2016 nomination for feigning outrage while privately “popping champagne” at the court’s ruling. “They stand for nothing!” he spat. He whacked party leaders for supporting illegal “amnesty.” He called for a constitutional amendment that would force Supreme Court Justices to stand in elections. He even slammed Chief Justice John Roberts, a longtime friend from conservative legal circles.
“You’re not calling balls and strikes,” Cruz tells TIME, invoking the umpire metaphor that Roberts deployed at his confirmation hearings to describe the role of a Justice. “You’ve joined a team.”
The important thing to understand about Cruz is that nothing he says is by accident. For all his florid rhetoric, he is as disciplined a speaker as any in the presidential field. His stump speech — delivered without notes or teleprompters — is carefully honed, with the same canned jokes at each stop, the same pauses for emphasis, the same cadences and delivery. The conservative crowds in this heavily evangelical swath of Iowa eagerly gobbled the red meat Cruz tossed, including jabs at “liberal intolerance” and warnings of the coming “vicious assault on religious liberty.”
But in some ways the crucial part of the routine is a more subtle argument, one aimed at voters around the country who remain skeptical that a candidate like Cruz has a real shot at winning the presidency. This, he explains, is a lie perpetrated by the cartel.
“The game of the Washington cartel,” Cruz tells crowds, “is to convince conservatives you can’t win.”
To prove otherwise, Cruz points to money. “We launched the campaign on March 23,” Cruz tells about 60 people in a drab community center in Sheldon, Iowa, on Friday. “We set a goal of raising $1 million in a week. Frankly, I thought that was a pretty audacious goal.” He paused for emphasis. “We raised $1m in one day.”
By the end of the week, Cruz adds, his campaign had raked in more than $4 million — “more money than any Republican [campaign] has raised in the opening week in modern history.” Including Establishment types like Mitt Romney and John McCain.
Candidates rarely get into granular fundraising details on the stump. But these stats are not just a point of pride (or a product of insecurity). They are central to Cruz’s case that a true conservative can harness grassroots energy to beat the cartel. The cartel is supposed to control the party’s purse strings, Cruz says — and yet here he is, a Tea Partyer despised by the GOP establishment, raking in serious dollars.
Cruz has collected more than $40 million since announcing his campaign, with most of that coming from a constellation of super PACs backing his bid. That’s far less than a “cartel” candidate like Jeb Bush, who is soon expected to report raising in the neighborhood of $100 million so far. But it’s enough to put him snugly in the next tier, along with candidates like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, on upcoming fundraising reports.
More importantly, the tally underlines Cruz’s ability to compete financially, which most movement conservatives cannot. “We’ve not seen a grassroots conservative with serious fundraising ability since 1980,” Cruz told a small group of voters in the Dutch Bakery in Orange City, whose specialty almond patties retail for $1.50. Cruz’s stump speech builds to this argument: that he is the rare true believer with the fundraising firepower to withstand a long and grueling primary. The campaign’s actions bear out this strategy. Cruz has trekked to places like Massachusetts and staffed up in states like Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. He is trying to build a national infrastructure that can capitalize on early momentum.
An early consequence of this long view is that Cruz has spent less time in Iowa so far than expected. He has just a skeleton staff here, led by conservative activist and former pastor Bryan English. Cruz is actually polling lower by some measures in the first-in-the-nation Hawkeye State, an evangelical stronghold well suited to his style, than he is nationwide.
Cruz promises crowds that he’ll be spending “a lot of time in the great state of Iowa.” In Orange City on Friday, he gamely submitted to the retail ritual the caucuses require. He toured a store filled with Dutch-style wooden shoes, glad-handed retirees and knelt to take photos with children. “He stands up and fights,” says retiree Patricia Boonstra, after taking a picture with Cruz on her iPad. On Saturday, the candidate delivered a sermon-style speech, titled “Believe Again,” on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines.
Steve King, the conservative congressman who represents northwest Iowa, tells TIME that Cruz has the chops to win the caucuses. “He’s a natural-born, full-spectrum conservative,” King says. “The voters are starting to follow him.”
Cruz has an uphill climb to win the nomination. He’s polling around 6% nationally over the past month, behind not only Bush, Walker and Rubio but also former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and fellow freshman Senator Rand Paul, who is hoping to build on his father’s robust network in Iowa and elsewhere. It’s not only the Washington cartel that dislikes Cruz. Many of the party’s moderate voters are put off by his slashing style.
But the Texan draws optimism from the success of two candidates who were also written off in the early going. One is Barack Obama, who toppled Hillary Clinton in 2008 with a guerrilla campaign Cruz speaks of with awe. (Cruz admired Obama’s battle plan so much he bought staffers a copy of the now President’s campaign manager David Plouffe’s memoir.) The other is Ronald Reagan. “I think 2016,” he says, “is going to be an election like 1980.”