To hear Ted Cruz’s backers tell it, the firebrand U.S. senator from Texas is Donald Trump with a pinch of reason and electability.
The Cruz presidential campaign has the most to gain from Trump’s roundly-condemned pitch to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., several Cruz Iowa backers said in separate phone interviews Tuesday. Their reasoning: By contrast, Cruz’s positions come off as more politically mainstream.
“This makes Senator Cruz seem much more sane,” Iowa State Sen. Dennis Guth told Bloomberg.
“Cruz is like Trump, but at a toned down level,” echoed State Sen. Jake Chapman. “He’s not going to say something like that.”
Jeff King, another prominent Cruz backer and the son of Rep. Steve King, an Iowa powerbroker who has also endorsed the Texan, concurred. “It shows that you never know with Trump. Senator Cruz? He’s consistent,” King said.
With Trump’s swift, outsider ascent to the top of the Republican presidential field, Cruz’s stunning anti- establishment upset in the 2012 Texas Republican primary now feels like old news. Since then, Cruz has perhaps become best known for leading the charge that led to the 2013 government shutdown, which, within his own party, earned him no shortage of critics who questioned his tactics and temperament. To Cruz’s most ardent Iowa supporters, however, that episode only bolstered his conservative bona fides.
“He’s taken bold stands-shutting down the government, that kind of thing,” said Guth. “He did something that sounds wild and crazy with the shutting down government thing. That didn’t cost him the political collateral that everyone predicted it would. That’s similar to what Trump is doing. But Trump doesn’t have any consequences, just words.”
Chapman said that unlike Trump, Cruz “isn’t someone who is quick to pull the trigger,” but he will stand firm. Guth said that Trump’s “ego is the biggest elephant in the room and it makes it a little tough for some of us to swallow.”
Trump’s bravado still appears to be playing well with Iowa voters: a CNN pollof the state released Monday found him besting Cruz by a 33 percent to 20 percent margin.
Still, Cruz’s momentum in Iowa is undeniable. A Monmouth University Poll, also released Monday found him leading Trump in the Hawkeye State by a margin of 24 percent to 19 percent, and led some observers to question whether Trump’s statement about a moratorium on Muslim travel, released later that same day, was designed to distract attention away from what could be a changing tide in the race.
“It’s conspicuous by its timing,” Jamie Johnson, a former Republican Party official in Iowa who played a national role in the failed campaign of former Texas Governor Rick Perry, said of Trump’s Muslim proposal. “I think he was afraid that he would lose Iowa to Cruz and therefore he went nuclear.”
Johnson declined to speculate on whether Trump’s statement will help or hurt him in Iowa, although he said it did accomplish one thing. “With this issue, Trump was able to get to the right of Ted Cruz, which nobody thought was possible,” he said.
Cruz could get another boost on Thursday, when Bob Vander Plaats and his Iowa-based conservative advocacy, the Family Leader, are expected to announce their endorsements. Cruz is viewed as a front-runner for those coveted seals of approval, which could carry considerable weight among evangelical conservatives.
In part, Cruz’s rise in Iowa has been made possible by Trump’s full-throated and aggressive advocacy for controversial policies, some of which, like securing the border, both men advocate.
“Senator Cruz has a more humble approach,” Guth said.
“He’s got a more prudent approach than Trump,” added Chapman.
“Humble” and “prudent” are not traits many members of Congress associate with Cruz. This is, after all, the same freshman senator who in July took to the Senate floor and called Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, a “liar,” and who then-House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, infamously dubbed a “jackass” at a private fundraiser.
Throughout the campaign, Cruz has capitalized on Trump’s penchant for headline-grabbing rhetoric in part by refraining from the kind of harsh criticism leveled at the billionaire by rival presidential candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham or Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
In response to the outcry over Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country, Cruz offered a relatively mild rebuke.
“I recognize that a great many folks in the media would prefer that anyone running for president engage as an ongoing theater critic, criticizing the proposals of others,” Cruz said at a press conference Tuesday. “I do not agree with his proposal. I do not think it is the right solution.”
Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, said that Cruz has “worked hardest to pick up Trump supporters.”
“He has been very careful not to really criticize Trump in the way that some of the other candidates have,” Sanders said. “There has been some movement toward him. But that may halt for the next week or so because every time Mr. Trump says something controversial and media coverage goes up, support for Trump goes up.”
Guth said that Trump’s comments show he “doesn’t care about the consequences.” “We kind of like that, don’t get me wrong,” Guth said. “But when it’s someone negotiating with world peace? We want someone who understands that there’s consequences. Ted Cruz gets that.”
John McCormick contributed.