Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to crowd during a campaign rally at Ottawa Farms December 19, 2015 in Bloomingdale, Georgia.
Nicholas Pilch—2015 Getty Images
December 30, 2015

“Let me say some words that are forbidden in our nation’s capital,” Ted Cruz began. “Merry Christmas!”

It was just a little joke, a way to warm up the crowd gathered inside a community center in remote central Texas on a cold Tuesday night. But the quip, a greeting wrapped inside an anti-political correctness bromide, was the sort of cue Cruz has been sending to Christian audiences all year. These small declarations of faith have played a deceptively large role in positioning the Texas senator as a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

Cruz is ascendant as 2015 draws to a close. He’s surged into first place in the Iowa caucus polls and into second place nationally. With a big war chest, a deep grassroots network and a strong ground game across the delegate-rich southern states that will play a greater role in 2016, his campaign has become bullish on its chances of riding a wave of conservative ardor to the GOP nomination.

Read More: Ted Cruz Closes in on Donald Trump for Republican Presidential Lead

The rush of momentum was catalyzed by his courtship of conservative Christians. Cruz has long enjoyed an avid Tea Party following. But from the outset of his campaign, he’s made a hard push to broaden his appeal with the GOP’s Evangelical wing. He opened his campaign in March at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian college, with a stump speech that resembled a sermon. And he’s never looked back. Earlier in December, a powerful coalition of national Christian leaders moved toward supporting the Texas insurgent. In recent weeks, Cruz has rolled out a host of high-profile endorsements from national evangelical leaders.

Now he is looking to cement his emerging status as the candidate of the religious right. That’s why, while his rivals trudged through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz was spending one of the last days of the year in a two-stoplight town a few hours west of Dallas. Tiny Cisco (median income: $34,000) is not exactly a bastion of party power. But it happens to be the home of two of Cruz’s most influential supporters: brothers Farris and Dan Wilks.

Though relatively unknown, the Wilks family has been the single largest contributors to outside groups in the 2016 presidential race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The billionaire brothers and their wives have dumped $15 million in the coffers of a pro-Cruz super PAC. They also preside over family foundations that pour millions more into a diverse array of social-conservative causes, including efforts to combat abortion and gay marriage. The summit in Cisco was an effort by Farris Wilks, the pastor of a local church, and his brother to introduce the faithful to Cruz’s campaign.

Read More: How Ted Cruz is Winning the Race—On the Ground

About 300 pastors and nations faith leaders met Monday and Tuesday at Farris Wilks’ sprawling estate outside Cisco for an audience with Cruz. The sessions included group briefings and 1-on-1 meetings. Some of the attendees were already supporters; others indicated they were moving in that direction after listening to the candidate speak. “We made inroads with a lot of people,” says a source with knowledge of the gathering.

The unusual two-day summit included a fundraiser for a pro-Cruz super PAC, where supporters forked over at least $500 and up to eat dinner inside a community center named for the Wilks’ brothers’ mother. The meal was followed by a public rally, where Cruz laced his typical stump speech with religious themes and name-checked his pastor father, who “travels the whole country preaching the gospel,” Cruz said to applause.

A standing-room crowd of several hundred delivered several standing ovations. “He’s a good Christian man, that’s No. 1 in my mind,” says Dan Nelson, an attendee at the rally. “He’s not ashamed of his faith … I’ve seen him pray. I’ve seen him act out his Christianity.”

It’s no guarantee that evangelicals will coalesce around Cruz. The Christian right is a famously fractious bloc, and several well-liked competitors remain in the field, include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the last two winners of the Iowa caucuses. Cruz will have to endure a month of frontrunner scrutiny before he can join them.

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But the race is moving his way. “His tireless work in reaching out to people and elevating some of these issues,” says former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a well-connected Christian conservative, “has caused a certain momentum that will feed on itself.”

Read Next: Marco vs. Ted: Inside the Rivalry Reshaping the GOP

Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com.

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