Look past the face paint and the camo, the bird calls and the ZZ Top beard. There’s one theme—one word, really—in Ted Cruz’s new video announcing the endorsement of Phil Robertson that’s meant to linger long after viewers stop chuckling at the sight of a starchy senator crouching in a backwoods duck blind.
“He’s godly,” the Duck Dynasty patriarch drawls, not once but twice. “He loves us. He’s the man for the job.”
This is what Cruz has been trying to convey his whole campaign, ever since launching at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University with a stemwinder that was part-stump speech, part sermon: that he is a man of God. It’s a message calibrated to court the voters in Iowa, where 57% of caucus-goers identified as Evangelical in 2012. Will the conservative reality TV star move any votes? Who knows. But Robertson is amplifying a point that the Cruz camp has been pushing, at private meetings and value-voters forums and every campaign trail stop, since he jumped into the race in March.
As TIME reports in a new story in the upcoming issue of the magazine, Cruz is trying to ride the power of the pews—and the checkbooks of a cadre of extremely wealthy donors—to the Republican presidential nomination. He’s betting that he can broaden his Tea Party following by winning over social conservatives, and use a victory in Iowa—where he’s in a virtual dead heat with Donald Trump in a new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll released Wednesday—as a springboard to success in South Carolina. Beyond that lies the delegate-rich contests of the SEC Primary on Super Tuesday, where the electorate fits Cruz’s ideology like a tailored suit.
So far the strategy is on track. Cruz has a real chance to become the first candidate to George W. Bush to consolidate the GOP’s social-conservative wing, as well as the first insurgent conservative in a generation with the fundraising firepower to sustain a campaign through a grueling national primary.
Those two goals converged a few days before New Year’s, at a remote ranch outside Cisco, Tex., a pinprick on the prairie that happens to be one of the main sources of income for the push to make Cruz President. Farris Wilks, along with his brother Dan and their wives, has pumped $15 million into a pro-Cruz super PAC, making the family the single largest contributors to a candidate in the 2016 election. Wilks “supports Sen. Cruz because he’s a committed conservative with a strong faith,” says Laura Barnett, a spokeswoman for the super PAC. “He’s not afraid to stand against members of his own party and say things that need to be said.”
On this frigid night, Cruz was speaking to some 300 faith leaders from around the country, who gathered at the opulent house to hear Cruz’s presidential pitch. Cruz and his wife, Heidi, mingled with the crowd, delivered joint remarks for more than an hour, prayed with the audience for some 90 minutes more and took questions on everything from foreign policy to faith to economic issues. “It was part of the introduction process,” says David Barton, an Evangelical leader who heads up Keep the Promise, a network of pro-Cruz super PACs. “That’s what it takes.”
The event was a soft sell. But the campaign was hoping to build on its success with the leaders of the religious right. After two elections backing social-conservative candidates who could afford little more than gas money, Christian leaders have long been eager to back a horse with the money to win. And Cruz has raked in more than $65 million between his campaign and allied super PACs, more than any Republican except Jeb Bush.
“In 2012 and in 2008, conservatives never coalesced,” says Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund and former attorney general of Virginia, who endorsed Cruz in December. “The typical establishment play got run where they just outlast us with more money. That’s another feature Ted Cruz brings to the table. They’ve been extremely frugal and have terrific cash-on-hand.” Others feel similarly. In mid-December, a group of national social-conservative leaders gathered at a hotel in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, to take a straw poll of presidential preferences. In a final ballot, which was first reported by National Review, more than three-quarters voted to back Cruz.
“Cruz played a lot of the right cards,” says a national political adviser with deep Evangelical ties, who did not want to speak on the record about Cruz’s success because he is backing another candidate. “It started with launching with his campaign at Liberty University. A lot of people see that as a sign that this guy’s one of us.”
They were the same words Robertson used in the video to make the case for Cruz. “You’re one of us,” the hirsute duck hunter tells the Texas senator. Now Cruz has to hope that Iowa voters agree.