KINGWOOD — Ted Cruz didn’t have to work too hard to excite the Tea Party crowd gathered in this Houston suburb, a friendly audience including his parents that erupted with adulation at every turn of his stump speech.
On Thursday evening, the Republican U.S. senator described how groups like this one — the Kingwood Tea Party — were critical to his come-from-behind victory in the 2012 Senate race, and how he will need their support again for the 2016 presidential election.
“Texas’ primary is going to be on March 1, and thanks to the efforts and the leadership of the men and women in this room, we’re going to win this state’s primary,” said Cruz, making explicit a goal he hinted at during stops earlier that day in Tyler and Fort Worth.
Cruz is not the only presidential candidate promising that nowadays. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared last week in McAllen that he intends to win the Texas primary, and during a three-day swing through the state this week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign indicated it is not settling for second place in the Lone Star State.
A number of other candidates are also sending signals they see an opening in Texas, the biggest prize of the several Southern states set to vote March 1 in what has been dubbed the “SEC primary.”
In Fort Worth, Cruz bristled a bit when a reporter asked if he was playing defense on his home turf with the jam-packed day of Texas rallies, meetings and media appearances.
"Actually the premise of your question's not exactly right. You're right that a lot of candidates have come to Texas for fundraising, although their fundraising has not yielded a whole lot of results," Cruz replied, noting that his campaign has reported raising nearly six times the amount of money from Texas that Bush's campaign has.
Cruz continued: "We've got a tremendous base of support here, and so they may discover a difficult path, but I welcome every one of them into the state of Texas, and I hope they try to make the case to the voters here how they will be a consistent conservative, rather than just someone who talks a good game on the campaign trail."
To be sure, there are few signs that Cruz's home-state support is in peril. He is collecting more checks, chits and endorsements from Texas than any other candidate, even those with deep ties to the state like Bush. On Thursday, Cruz secured the backing of at least two more in-state elected officials: Republican state Reps. Bryan Hughes of Mineola and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington.
Yet the flurry of GOP attention being paid to Texas has raised natural questions about Cruz's ability to fend off out-of-state challengers. That's especially true as the other Texan running for president, former Gov. Rick Perry, sees his campaign fade amid fundraising woes, ceding more of the favorite-son status to Cruz.
“If he felt Texas was sewn up, why would he be spending his time and resources here?” asked Jenifer Sarver, an Austin-based communications consultant who worked in George W. Bush's presidential administration. Suggesting Cruz has given the state short shrift as a senator, she added, “You have to be home once in a while to have a home-field advantage.”
In Fort Worth and Tyler, Cruz drew at least several hundred people to raucous rallies where he delivered a version of his stump speech tailored to evoke memories of his underdog triumph in the 2012 Senate race against then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
"Y'all saw what we did together in the Senate race," Cruz said told his Fort Worth audience. "All the political graybeards said there was no way you could win that race, and it came from the grassroots.
"It started out it was a few dozen, then it became a few hundred, then it became a few thousands, then it became tens of thousands across this state," Cruz said, adding that he was seeing the same growing support in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina now that he's running for president.
Several hours later in Kingwood, Cruz called the Tea Party "ground zero for where the Senate campaign began," a friendly corner of the state where Cruz's assiduous outreach to conservative activists helped propel his victory over Dewhurst. As he traversed the state Thursday, he reconnected with some of those early supporters, including Konni Burton, now a state senator, and JoAnn Fleming, now the Texas Tea Party chairwoman of Cruz's presidential campaign.
Introducing Cruz in Tyler, Fleming offered a warning to out-of-staters that could have just as well applied to the GOP hopefuls looking to encroach on Cruz's territory.
"We've got to fight for Texas," she said. "We've got a lot of people who are moving to Texas who might not have Texas values. I'm telling you we're going to take it to them. If they can't come to Texas and have those Texas values of faith and family and freedom, guess what? They can go back to where they came from."
After listening to Cruz in Fort Worth, his supporters in the Legislature scoffed at the idea other candidates are eating into his home-state advantage. Tinderholt said Cruz not only appears safe in Texas, but he's "pretty safe across America," pointing to Cruz's fundraising advantage over most other GOP hopefuls.
"I think he’s in a very strong position right now" in Texas, said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, an Irving Republican who has also endorsed Cruz for president. "You’ve got to run hard unless you’re unopposed, but he’s a in a very strong position ... the best position among the Republican candidates."
As well wishers streamed to the front of the room after Cruz's Kingwood speech in Kingwood, one of them, Walter West, did not hesitate when asked whether Cruz has anything to worry about in his home state. "Not here in Texas, that's for sure," said West, a military veteran. "He's in friendly territory, for sure."