DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Never mind that he lost.
Tea party Sen. Ted Cruz took nothing short of a victory lap in his state of Texas this week, appearing before wildly supportive crowds that overlooked the fact that the Republican who led the charge to kill money for President Barack Obama’s health care law had failed.
Now he’s coming to Iowa, where Republicans who will have the first say in the next presidential race are certain to view him more skeptically than GOP loyalists do back home.
In Iowa and across the nation, the GOP is in the midst of an internal war pitting tea partyers like Cruz who argue for ideological purity against more mainstream Republicans advocating a more pragmatic, inclusive party approach to governing.
The two sides will be on display Friday night when Cruz — an untraditional Republican who hasn’t ruled out running for president — gives the keynote address at a very traditional gathering: the Iowa Republican Party’s annual fall fundraiser.
In Iowa, a state where people are as well-known for their politeness as conservatives are for their convictions, Cruz is likely to be warmly received. But that will belie the sharp divisions among Republicans in the state.
Cruz went to the Senate on a wave of tea party passion in 2012. But if he runs for president, it’s Iowa, known for its thorough examination of the candidates where he’ll be judged first.
And Gov. Terry Branstad, scheduled to speak right before Cruz, has displayed little patience for Congress over the past month, especially the drama surrounding the partial government shutdown in which Cruz played a starring role.
“It’s counterproductive, and Americans are fed up with it,” Branstad said of political gamesmanship in Congress in a recent Associated Press interview.
Branstad and his allies in Iowa’s GOP business establishment are trying to reclaim power in the state party from tea partyers, libertarians and social conservatives. It’s a scene beginning to play out across the country, with veteran GOP luminaries now openly fearing that tea party stars like Cruz are costing Republicans the new voters they need to win again nationally.
Cruz certainly disputes that he’s merely a crusader, arguing often that he’s sticking to his principles of small government and less spending, when it’s GOP leadership in Congress that’s betraying them by compromising.
The 42-year-old former Texas solicitor general was elected to the Senate last year. He stunned the Republican establishment in Texas by beating Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the 2012 Republican runoff, en route to becoming Texas’ first Hispanic senator.
Already an underdog winner, Cruz wasted little time seizing on it, and the tea-party faithful who propelled him.
He spoke for 21 hours last month on the Senate floor to urge colleagues to vote against allowing money for the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The performance was the talk of Washington and boosted C-SPAN ratings, but did little else.
Cruz also helped precipitate the 16-day partial federal shutdown with his demand that President Barack Obama gut his 3-year-old health care law. He also successfully urged a core of House Republicans to follow suit.
“Throughout this entire battle, the response that I’ve received from Texans has been overwhelming,” he told reporters in Fort Worth, Texas, this week.
He’s also turned heads in Iowa, though the early reviews are mixed, even within the strict conservative audience he would naturally court as a candidate for the 2016 caucuses.
The lengthy Senate speech “only confirmed to me as an Iowa activist that this man has what it takes to run for president,” said Jamie Johnson, a member of the state GOP central committee who was state chairman of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s winning 2012 caucus campaign.
In the end, Cruz relented over the shutdown and declined to block passage of a compromise in the Democratic-led Senate that would allow the closed federal services to reopen and to raise the federal debt limit to cover existing liabilities.
Susan Geddes, a leading social conservative strategist in Iowa, said she didn’t know enough about Cruz, although his actions had produced little progress.
“It not helpful,” said Geddes. “It just seems to me that it has to be productive, or it’s not productive.”
What mattered more to the thousands who met him during stops this week in San Antonio, Houston and Arlington, Texas, is that he stood up for his beliefs, no matter the outcome.
The crowd in suburban Dallas roared for a 14-minute ovation, standing and reaching out to hug and clutch at Cruz’s clothing as he made his way down the aisle.
Cyndi McArtor was among the 1,000 in the hall on the last stop on Cruz’s Texas tour.
McArtor wasn’t the only one hoping Cruz runs for president, toting a sign that proclaimed “Run, Ted, run.”
“Maybe Ted Cruz can stop it,” McArtor said of what she described as the nation’s steep decline, “but only if he gets elected president.”
Organizers also promoted Ted’s Army, a pro-Cruz group that promised to rush to the senator’s defense if he was accosted by protesters.
Randy King said simply of his commitment to Cruz and to stopping Obama’s health care law, “I will fight.”
The 57-year-old cancer survivor added: “It may be the death of me, but I will fight.”
Weissert reported from Arlington, Texas. Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed from Des Moines.
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