DES MOINES, Iowa — Ted Cruz, long viewed as a natural match for the socially conservative voters in this key primary state, is intensifying his appeal to the already friendly voting bloc, seeking to tap into anxieties over religious persecution only compounded by recent court decisions.
Before an audience of more than 2,000 people here Friday night, the junior U.S. senator from Texas brought his pitch to evangelical Christians full circle with a two-and-half-hour-long rally that featured tearful recollections of challenges to religious beliefs, ominous warnings about the country's future and explicit overtures to faith-based voters on the fence about the 2016 presidential race.
"You wonder why we have a federal government that comes after our free-speech rights, that comes after our religious liberty, that comes after life, that comes after marriage, that comes after our values — it is because 54 million evangelical Christians stayed home" in the 2012 presidential election, Cruz said. "Well, I'm here to tell you, we will stay home no longer."
Earlier Friday night, Cruz raised the stakes even higher while recalling his legal crusades to keep Christian symbols in the public sphere.
"You want to know what this election is about?" he said. "We're one justice away from the Supreme Court saying every image of God shall be torn down."
The rally, bookended by performances by Christian music acts, spotlighted several people who dealt with the consequences of speaking out about their religious beliefs. Chief among them were Dick and Betty Odgaard, an Iowa couple who shut down their wedding business in June after a drawn-out battle stemming from their refusal to accommodate a gay marriage.
"We cannot celebrate a sin. We cannot take part in what we believe is a sin," Betty Odgaard replied when Cruz asked onstage why she and her husband did not just give in to the pressure to do business with the gay couple.
After watching the event, Cruz supporter John Wacker suggested his efforts to fire up religious voters are coming at a critical time.
"We're much more motivated than we've ever been before," said Wacker, a manufacturing engineer from Garner, Iowa. "The court decisions and just the sense of urgency for our country — it's totally going in the wrong direction, and we just need to step up and be involved."
Cruz's campaign is hoping the outrage shown by people like Wacker translates into guaranteed support come January. Cruz's team is known for viewing the GOP primary electorate as a system of brackets, including one made up of the evangelical voters for whom the rally was tailored. In the Hawkeye State, with its heavy concentration of faith-based voters, Cruz sees a unique opening not shared by every Republican hopeful.
"The reason why a number of the more moderate candidates have publicly all but written off Iowa is because 57 percent of Iowa caucusgoers are self-described very conservative evangelicals, and the more moderate candidates have a very difficult time with earning the support of the Iowa caucusgoers," Cruz said in an interview earlier this month.
About two months ago, Cruz's campaign set out to retool its Iowa focus after what some saw as a lukewarm start in a state that seems tailored to the senator's political strengths. He consummated the revised strategy with a fiery June speech here that eviscerated the U.S. Supreme Court for its rulings in favor of the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage.
Bryan English, Cruz's top adviser in the Hawkeye State, said in an interview Friday morning that the religious freedom rally represented another critical juncture in Cruz's Iowa efforts. English predicted the rally would be a "turning point where we're beginning to ratchet things up to a different level."
Cruz is already recruiting pastors in all of Iowa's 99 counties to handle outreach to faith communities. And he is zeroing in on the state's conservative power-brokers as they whittle down their choices for 2016 — an effort that paid off this week when he secured the endorsement of Steve Deace, an influential radio host who helped moderate parts of the religious freedom rally.
Cruz's campaign believes it is on the upswing in Iowa at a key moment in the 2016 process. The GOP field is "beginning to sift itself out and people are starting to recognize there are candidates who have what it takes to go the distance," English said, citing conversations with state-level activists.
Cruz still faces considerable competition for Iowa's highly sought-after evangelical Christians. People who came to his Friday night rally named former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — an ordained minister — and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as two other candidates playing hard for the faith-based vote.
For Wacker, though, Cruz remains the best bet when it comes to religious liberty.
"I just don't think anybody else has the experience that he has with this issue," Wacker said, nodding to Cruz's tenure as solicitor general of Texas. "I don't think anybody else can articulate it to the point that he does or he can."