DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Ted Cruz rolled into the pivotal political state of Iowa Friday, declaring a “new paradigm” of grass-roots power aimed at Washington and winning cheers from Republican activists.
His 43-minute speech was a litany of what he called Obama administration mistakes. His remedy: Grass-roots uprisings on issue after issue.
He recalled the year’s battles, fights he helped support or engineer during his first 10 months as a U.S. senator from Texas. Cruz put his own spin on each.
The battle over the health care law, which led to a 16 day government shutdown, “elevated the national debate,” Cruz said. He likened the tepid economic growth of the Obama years to the days of President Jimmy Carter. And Cruz insisted the grass-roots pressure helped block President Barack Obama’s push for gun control and forced him to back off his plan to use military force against Syria — a questionable claim, as he got scant support from Democrats or Republicans in Washington.
The speech to about 600 of this state’s most ardent Republicans had the ring of a campaign address. He was well-received by the audience, curious to see the face of the Washington standoff over health care that shut down the government. They packed the downtown Iowa Events Center to celebrate the legacy of iconic hero Ronald Reagan and consider whether Cruz, the renegade Texas senator, could become a worthy apostle.
“He’s right. The health care debate was elevated,” said lobbyist Connie Schmett. Warren Polson, a Drake University law student who was not that familiar with Cruz but came away impressed. “He gave a positive message about growth and what the country needs,” Polson said.
Not always. He hit back at critical senators from his own party. “Had we stood together, I’m convinced the outcome of this fight would be very, very different,” Cruz said.
Cruz got a standing ovation when he started and consistent applause as he spoke. Regardless of criticism from the party’s establishment class that Cruz led them into a fight and shutdown they could not win, Republicans in the heartland were intrigued by him and his message.
“He’s a conservative fighter and he’s really speaking for a lot of little guys whose voices haven’t been heard,” said Iowa Republican chairman A.J. Spiker.
Still, many wanted to hear more before embracing him. “I want to like the guy, but I’m still trying to be sold,” said Ryan Frederick, an Orient, Iowa, real estate appraiser.
Like its state counterparts around the country, the Iowa Republican Party has been split between those demanding ideological purity and brinksmanship and those urging a more pragmatic, less confrontational approach. Cruz and his allies want to keep fighting the health care law, even if means employing controversial tactics and being blamed for the 16-day federal government shutdown. Others see the battle as one that can’t be won now, as long as Obama stays in office and Democrats run the Senate. The way to win, this crowd argues, is to win elections and install in office like-minded Republicans.
In his indictment of the Obama record, Cruz offered his own history of how the economy rebounded after the troubles of the late 1970s. “The answer we saw in 1980 was a grass-roots revolution,” Cruz said. Americans elected Reagan and vowed, “We’re gonna get back to the principles that made this nation great.” However, the nation suffered what then was its worst recession since the Great Depression in late 1981 and 1982.
“We need to be about economic growth, every day,” he said. “That’s how we turn the country around.” He said that will be driven by a rise of the grass-roots “that has Washington absolutely terrified.”
It’s been tested, he said, “unlike the Obamacare web site.” One test, he said, was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster earlier this year against drone policy. A second, he said, was after the December school shootings in Connecticut, when Obama “chose to target the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens.”
“When it came time for a vote every single proposal of the president’s that would have undermined the Second Amendment,” those votes fell short, Cruz said, again demonstrating the power of the grass-roots. Same with immigration, he said — a Senate plan to create a path to citizenship has been halted so far in the House of Representatives.
The political world is watching all this closely, because Iowa is the site of the first major contest of the 2016 presidential campaign.
If he did run for the Republican presidential nomination, Cruz likely would face a formidable lineup of potential challengers.
Paul appeals to this same take-no-prisoners conservative crowd, and he starts with a strong base of support left behind by his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who ran a respectable third in the 2012 caucus.
Others are also in the mix. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hardly appeals to the Cruz-Paul wing, but in a multi-candidate field his small but devoted base of moderate support could be enough to win.
Iowa will see them all. Over the next three weeks, prominent Republicans scheduled to visit include 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.