CLINTON, Iowa (AP) – Iowa Republican Sharon Gilbert thinks her party veered off course in the past two presidential elections by nominating candidates who were too moderate.
This time around, the 73-year-old Gilbert wants to send a staunch conservative into the general election, and she thinks Texas Sen. Ted Cruz might be that candidate. But she also has a nagging feeling that Cruz’s hardline views and combative style might keep him from getting anything done in Washington, a city where he’s frustrated his own party’s congressional leaders as much as – if not more than – the Democrats.
“I know he’s very far to the right, but I hope that he could work with both sides,” says Gilbert, who attended a town hall event with Cruz in her hometown of Clinton. “We don’t know that now because he’s been against Washington.”
It’s a central question of Cruz’s campaign as he gains momentum in the Republican primary: Can the uncompromising conservative unite a polarized nation and work with what he’s derisively called Washington’s “cartel” of career politicians, lobbyists and special interests?
Asked by a voter this week how he’d persuade Washington to follow his lead, Cruz said he planned to remake the way the nation’s capital works instead of trying to succeed within the current system.
“You do it with the power of the people,” he told the crowd gathered in a cavernous packaging factory in Clinton. He compared his campaign to a “grass-roots tidal wave” and said he’d emerge from the general election “with a mandate from the people.”
Cruz says his approach is modeled after Republican hero Ronald Reagan’s after the 1980 election. Yet his remarks are laced with echoes of President Barack Obama, one of the senator’s most frequent foils on the campaign trail.
Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to bring change to Washington, propelled by a grass-roots campaign and the power of millions of Americans. But the president’s term has been marred by near-constant confrontation with Republicans on both domestic and foreign policy, a government shutdown and numerous other fights that put the nation at the brink of default or interruptions in federal services.
Some Iowa Republicans wonder if Cruz – who like Obama is running for president midway through his first term in the Senate – could do much better.
“I’m not completely sold on him as somebody who can unify this country,” said Ron Mann, a 65-year-old Republican from Bettendorf who attended a jam-packed town hall with Cruz Monday evening. Mann used to live in Texas and voted for Cruz when he ran for Senate in 2012. Now an Iowa resident, Mann is leaning toward Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Republican voters have long debated whether it’s better to nominate a hardline conservative who can rally the party’s base or a more moderate candidate with broader general election appeal. The party’s last two nominees – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain – fell into the latter category, and some GOP voters blame their defeats on an inability to energize conservatives.
Since arriving in the Senate three years ago, Cruz has cultivated a reputation as an unbending conservative with an attention-grabbing style. He was the driver of the 2013 government shutdown, staging a 21-hour filibuster in the effort to defund Obama’s signature health care law and rallying House Republicans to block government funding that included spending on “Obamacare.”
Cruz’s strategy was derided by Republican leaders, who believed the public blamed the party for a shutdown that ultimately did nothing to advance the senator’s health care goals. The shutdown also contributed to a belief among some GOP leaders that Cruz is a self-promoter with no party loyalty.
“Ted Cruz makes Donald Trump look like a consensus builder when you consider his total inability to work with anybody of either party during his tenure in the Senate,” said Josh Holmes, a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has clashed frequently with Cruz. “If you consistently have trouble getting three senators of your own party to stand with you, it’s pretty tough to explain how you’re the candidate who can accomplish conservative reform.”
Cruz wears his tense relationship with Republican leaders as a badge of honor. Still, his campaign advisers say the Texas senator does have a track record of finding common ground with both Republicans and Democrats. Aides cite his work with New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on military sexual assault reforms and his partnership with Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley on gun legislation.
Bonnie Temperley of Clinton has Cruz on her short list of candidates for the Iowa caucuses, now just two months away. She, too, hopes he can ease Washington’s partisan gridlock – but not if it means shedding his conservative credentials.
“I want him to work with the other side, but not cave and be so worried about what people are going to think about Republicans,” said Temperley, who is also considering caucusing for Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon. “We have to stand for something.