The faithful gathered four days before New Year’s at a remote ranch on the frigid Texas prairie. Farris Wilks, a rural pastor and fracking billionaire, had summoned 300 of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders to his opulent mansion outside the two-stoplight town of Cisco for a private audience with GOP firebrand Ted Cruz. The crowd packed the house and spilled onto the patio, huddling near space heaters to ward off the chill. Cruz and his wife Heidi held court for hours, taking questions on everything from regulatory issues to foreign affairs. Prayer lasted nearly 90 minutes. “It was part of the introduction process,” says David Barton, an evangelical leader who runs Keep the Promise, a network of pro-Cruz super PACs. “That’s what it takes.”
It’s in meetings like this, at the nexus of great wealth and deep devotion, that Cruz is forging a coalition that could make him the Republican presidential nominee. The Texas Senator’s prospects hinge on two big bets. First, that he can broaden his following beyond the Tea Party by courting social conservatives. And second, that he can prove to evangelical leaders that a populist insurgent can muster the money and organization to compete in a grinding primary battle. Most of his rivals have shuffled tactics like lottery tickets, but Cruz has charted a course and stuck to it.
His bets are paying off. Cruz leads in polls of voter preferences ahead of the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. A victory in Iowa, his thinking goes, could vault him into the South Carolina primary later that month, and beyond that boost his chances in the delegate-rich Southern primaries on Super Tuesday, March 1. Buoyed by billionaires like Wilks, Cruz hopes to consolidate the support of the GOP’s conservative wing. The Cruz campaign and allied super PACs have raised more cash–more than $65 million–than any Republican except Jeb Bush. And he has won endorsements from scores of top Christian leaders in key states around the country. “The coalition he’s building is going to be very, very difficult to defeat,” says Iowa evangelical kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, who endorsed Cruz in December.
Party leaders, though allergic to Cruz, acknowledge that he has a real shot to stop Donald Trump and carry the GOP flag into a general-election battle against Hillary Clinton. If so, the path that ran through the Wilks ranch began at Liberty University, and he’s been singing the same hymns ever since.
Cruz launched his campaign in March at the Lynchburg, Va., evangelical institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. His speech that day blurred the boundary between stump and sermon, and his pilgrimage to the world’s largest Christian university was part of his plan to leverage the power of the pews in Iowa, where 57% of GOP caucusgoers identified as evangelical in 2012.
But rolling up the religious right is easier said than done. Consensus is the Higgs boson particle of the social-conservative universe, a phenomenon perpetually pursued but extremely elusive. In 2008, a cadre of influential pastors and businessmen screened Republican candidates at private gatherings but failed to settle on a favorite, paving the way for John McCain to win the nomination with scant support from their ranks. Four years later, something similar happened, as national Christian leaders couldn’t coalesce behind an alternative to Mitt Romney. For Cruz, this record was a kind of blessing. “There was a determination among many of us not to let that happen again,” says Ken Cuccinelli, former attorney general of Virginia, who endorsed Cruz in December.
And so the Texan lobbied top Christians during private dinners and public forums. After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide last summer, Cruz told Iowa voters that “2016 is going to be a religious-liberty election.” He cut a video tribute to Dick and Betty Odgaard, Iowa Mennonites who lost their wedding business after refusing to perform a same-sex wedding in their chapel.
Cruz tapped social conservatives for key campaign posts. The candidate’s father Rafael, himself an ordained minister, spent months crisscrossing early voting states, sharing the gospel of Ted with pastors and Tea Party activists. This “tireless work in reaching out to people and elevating some of these issues has caused a certain momentum that will feed on itself,” says Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative and onetime White House hopeful himself.
For months, prominent evangelical leaders held private meetings to weigh their options. Determined to back a viable candidate, they pored over fundraising reports like Scripture. “The most Christian candidate might be someone that can’t raise $10 million for an entire campaign,” says a well-connected social conservative with knowledge of those gatherings. “That person’s not going to be President, no matter how Christian they are.” In December, the group held a straw poll at a hotel in Northern Virginia. In the final ballot, more than three-quarters voted to support Cruz over Florida Senator Marco Rubio. The pastors have been rolling out their endorsements at intervals ever since to win media coverage and avoid any appearance of theocracy.
Which brings us to Wilks, a former bricklayer who grew up in a converted goat shed. Wilks and his brother Dan built a fracking-services business that they cashed in for $3.5 billion near the height of the shale boom in 2011, and they’re using part of the proceeds to play patron and matchmaker for Cruz. Farris Wilks remains pastor of the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day church near Cisco, which teaches a fundamentalist blend of the Old and New Testaments. He and his brother control nonprofit foundations that pour millions into social-conservative causes such as stopping abortion and same-sex marriage. Along with their wives, they have contributed $15 million to Keep the Promise. Those checks have made the little-known family the largest donors to any 2016 candidate. Wilks sees Cruz as “a committed conservative with a strong faith,” he told TIME through a spokesperson. “He’s not afraid to stand against members of his own party and say things that need to be said.”
Keep the Promise is organized as a quartet of interlocking groups, a structure designed to offer big donors more control over spending. Since September, it has been led by Barton, a historian popular on the right for his argument that America’s founders never intended to take faith out of the public square. In addition to the Wilkses, New York financier Robert Mercer funneled $11 million into his own pro-Cruz committee, while Texas energy investor Toby Neugebauer seeded another group with $10 million. Each group has a separate focus. The Wilks outfit is devoted to digital advertising on platforms like Facebook, while the Mercer group funds TV and radio ads, direct mail and data analysis.
The campaign uses data supplied by a Mercer-connected analytics firm to steer its decisions on everything from voter targeting to personnel to scheduling. Data “guides everything we do,” a senior campaign adviser told TIME in an interview last year. “It guides where to buy ads. It guides where we go.” And, more than anyone else, Cruz is searching for votes in the South. When rivals flocked to candidate cattle calls in Iowa and New Hampshire, he often took a longer view, traveling to states like Louisiana and North Carolina that vote in later waves of balloting to speak to county-level groups or court obscure party functionaries.
The strategy is dictated by a twist in this year’s election calendar. To ease a bruising primary process, party bosses compressed the voting this time around. The changes vest more power in the Republican Party’s strongest bastions, so that deeply conservative states choose their delegates in the pivotal first weeks of March. On Super Tuesday alone, roughly one-fourth of all pledged delegates will be up for grabs, including key contests in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, where Cruz’s message is tailored to the GOP voter.
Of all the candidates, Cruz has taken a singular approach to the Trump conundrum. Rather than brawl with a schoolyard bully, Cruz has cozied up to the bombastic front runner, in hopes that he will win over Trump’s supporters if the billionaire stumbles. A recent NBC/SurveyMonkey poll appeared to ratify the strategy: 39% of Trump supporters said Cruz was their second choice, nearly three times the figure for any rival. But the détente is fraying. Since Cruz opened a lead in Iowa, Trump has trained his guns on the Texan, questioning Cruz’s faith, his temperament, his opposition to ethanol subsidies and even his citizenship. (Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother; many legal experts say this satisfies the constitutional requirement that the President be a natural-born citizen.)
For his part, Cruz tried to tiptoe around Trump. On a six-day, 28-county Iowa bus tour that ended Jan. 9, he did appearances in diners and Christian bookstores while Trump held megarallies. “The Iowa way,” he flattered the crowds who braved subzero windchills in tiny hamlets. And while the campaign has little appetite for a one-on-one tussle, Trump’s provocations have forced Cruz to fight back by tweaking Trump’s “New York values” and his old ties to Clinton.
Other challenges loom. Staking out the most conservative position on almost every issue has benefits in a primary, but Cruz’s hard line leaves many Republicans unconvinced that he could attract moderate voters come autumn. Putting the Texan atop the ticket would “utterly destroy” the party’s chances in November, GOP strategist Josh Holmes told Politico. “We’d be hard-pressed to elect a Republican dogcatcher north of the Mason-Dixon or west of the Mississippi.”
And even a textbook campaign is only as good as its candidate. A former Supreme Court litigator, Cruz is a polished orator and a canny tactician with a feel for the fears of the base. But as a retail performer, he strikes some discordant notes. During one recent 48-hour stretch in Iowa, he talked about spanking his 5-year-old daughter and told an undocumented immigrant brought to the U.S. as a child that he would deport her if elected. In a race that has turned far more on personality than policy, he’s the candidate who can be hard to like. “If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy,” he conceded during an October debate. “But if you want someone to drive you home, I will get the job done.”
Not exactly charismatic. But maybe that’s the point. The rise of Trump is proof enough that at the close of the Obama era, what conservatives crave is not charm but combat, someone with the toughness–maybe even the mean streak–to tame a scary world. This is an election short on gauzy slogans and long on gravity. And Cruz does tribal rhetoric better than most.
Certainly the faithful are rallying to it. The night after the pastors’ conclave, a standing-room crowd crammed into the Cisco community center built by the Wilkses, greeting Cruz’s stump speech with staccato applause. The Wilks brothers are all in for Cruz because “they are very concerned about the future of the country,” explains Barton. “They think Ted is willing to fight.” For now, he has plenty of ammunition.
This appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of TIME.