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In 2016, A Different Campaign For Ted Cruz: Less Trigger-Happy, More Evangelical

Lauren Silverman
Ted Cruz supporters prepare hundreds of stickers to pass out at the Tarrand County Republican Straw Poll event in January.

In 2012, Ted Cruz made history when he beat incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for a seat in the U.S. Senate. In his first campaign, he pulled together a large dose of Tea Party anger and a little bit of evangelical power. As his presidential campaign focuses on Monday’s Iowa caucuses, he’s added a few new emotional ingredients to the mix.

Senator Cruz is still angry with Washington, but these days, he’s presenting himself as the calmer, more controlled version of that other Republican front runner. Nowhere was that clearer than at the Arlington Convention Center last weekend, where hundreds gathered for the Tarrant County Republican Straw Poll.

The Cruz booth was simple: a woman sitting in front of a banner with his name and a sign saying “Trusted." Next door, there were giant cardboard posters of Donald Trump wearing various trucker hats, and red, white and blue balloons bright as peacock feathers.

Konni Burton, a Texas state senator, didn’t let that drown her out.

“Please vote for Cruz in the straw poll,” she said to passersby.

Cruz has had only one other election, and Burton was a political novice when she got involved in his 2012 campaign.

“I got in on his campaign very early on,” she says. “I loved that he’s a constitutional conservative. I loved his background.”

Few expected Cruz to win in 2012. After all, he was going up against Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican with money, connections and mainstream name recognition. But the young lawyer tapped into a wellspring of anger among grassroots organizers like Burton.

“We had a Republican majority, and yet we were very frustrated more conservative legislation wasn’t coming out of the Senate,” she says.

In South Texas, a young Republican named Joshua Rojas was also frustrated, and found he connected with Ted Cruz as well. Today, Rojas is state director of Millennials for Cruz.

“We really like that he can explain what we’re feeling. Because a lot of us -- we feel this frustration for what’s going on but we’re not sure how to talk about it,” Rojas says.

In 2012, Rojas says Cruz gathered all that anger among voters and bust into the Senate like a bull in a china shop.

“In the beginning he was a little bit more trigger-happy, I guess you could say," Rojas says. "He would jump right into fights; he would say exactly what he thought without hesitation.”

These days, there’s another bull on the rampage.

Speaking at the Republican debate on Jan. 14, Trump said he’d gladly accept “the angry mantle.”

“Our country is being run by incompetent people, and yes, I am angry,” he said.

TCU political science professor James Riddlesperger thought Trump support would be waning by now.

“He is resonating with the mood of at least a portion of the American public who are angry with the way things are in the world,” Riddlesperger says.  

Trump is resonating with folks in Texas like Ed Coley, who showed up to the Tarrant County Republican straw poll in a camo trucker hat sporting a handlebar mustache.

“My personal impression of Donald Trump is he won’t take any guffs," Coley says. "He is going to do what’s right for this country and if it pisses someone off then guess what you just got pissed off.”

Since Trump is ruling the angry roost, Cruz has had to scoot over a bit and claim fresh territory – among evangelicals. Lucky for him, some evangelical Republicans feel like they’ve been left out.

That’s how Mary Smith, an evangelical Ted Cruz supporter from Arlington, put it at the Tarrant County Straw Poll.

“I like the fact that [Cruz] is from Texas,” she says. “He’s a conservative. He’s a godly man.”

Cruz has already landed a few big endorsements from evangelicals, and he’s taken notes from his pastor father. Speaking at the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa in 2015, he said: “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this country.”

Which brings us to the results of that Tarrant County straw poll. Cruz took first, with 40 percent. Trump had 27 percent.

You might have expected Cruz to have a bigger lead in a Republican bastion of his home state.

Supporters like Rojas aren’t worried. He says it might seem like Cruz has pulled his punches, but he’s just gotten more strategic about when he picks a fight. 

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.