Looking to build support in a slew of states with expanded influence in the 2016 presidential hunt, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is hitting the road in the South to make good on his promise to play a long game in pursuit of the GOP nomination.
On Friday afternoon, Cruz will launch a bus tour of southern states expected to make up the so-called "SEC primary," a reference to the NCAA's influential Southeastern Conference. All the states are holding or looking to hold their presidential nominating contests on March 1, an earlier-than-usual date for most that ensures they command candidate attention.
Over the course of a week, Cruz is scheduled to participate in more than 20 public events in seven states representing almost 30 percent of the delegates needed to win the GOP nomination: Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.
"It's clear we're running a national campaign," campaign manager Jeff Roe said in an interview Thursday, emphasizing Cruz's team is playing hard in the first few early-voting states but also looking beyond them. "You're going to see our campaign do something that other campaigns are not, which is dedicate time and resources to the next wave of states."
Cruz laid out the thinking behind the tour in an appearance Sunday at a California conference organized by GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch.
"Well, the first three states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina — are critical, but the RNC has sped up this process," Cruz said, referring to the Republican National Committee. "Immediately thereafter you're going to have Nevada, then you're going to pop into Super Tuesday, then in just a couple of weeks, the SEC primary."
Cruz added: "For any serious candidate to play, you're going to have to run a national campaign. Now you look at those states — states like Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas. Those are conservative states. They're evangelical states. States where our grassroots team is incredibly strong. And I view the SEC primary as a firewall."
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the March 1 primaries could be a crucial baseline test of Cruz's presidential appeal as a Texan whose ideology closely tracks the deeply conservative states.
"If he can’t do well in the South, it’s going to be hard to convince the voters in Ohio and Indiana that you ought to take a serious look at him," said Bullock, who specifically studies the politics of the South.
One potential challenge, Bullock noted, is the unusually large size of the GOP field, which currently stands at 18 candidates. While the field will likely thin out, it could nonetheless remain "hard for anybody to run the table" come March 1, Bullock said.
Cruz is nonetheless putting in the effort, as evidenced by a schedule that has him traversing from South Carolina to Oklahoma in seven days, starting with a kick-off rally Friday afternoon in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and ending with a similar event Aug. 13 in Tulsa. Cruz's bus tour will not include any stops in Texas, though he is scheduled to back in the state on Sept. 3 for the Kingwood TEA Party's Constitution Day Celebration & Freedom Rally.
Throughout the tour, Cruz will put in appearances with southern political leaders such as U.S. Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama and Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, who has already endorsed Cruz for president. For the Mississippi leg of the trip, Cruz will be joined by state Sen. Chris McDaniel, whose unsuccessful challenge last year to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran — and the ensuing disputes over the election results — became a conservative cause célèbre.
Cruz's campaign is also planning to punctuate its swing through each of the states by releasing a list of prominent backers on the ground. The campaign got a head start Thursday, unveiling a Georgia leadership team chaired by U.S. Rep. Jody Hice and co-chaired by four state senators.
Rick Allen, chairman of the Muscogee County GOP in Georgia, said his members have taken note of Cruz's outreach "this early in the game," particularly to the Peach State, which the senator has visited twice since launching his 2016 campaign. The party has not heard from any other Republican hopeful, Allen added.
Muscogee County is about 100 miles southwest of Atlanta, where several GOP candidates are speaking this weekend at an annual gathering organized by the conservative website RedState. The county GOP is hosting Cruz for a barbecue dinner Saturday night that is expected to draw 350 people.
"We don't understand why all of them aren't doing what he's doing," Allen said of Cruz. "We're kind of wondering where the rest of them are."