In Iowa, Cruz Campaign Ramps Up — Carefully

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has been ramping up his presidential campaign in early voting Iowa but signaling that he is doing it more cautiously than other candidates who have seen their fortunes rise and fall in the 2016 race.

Presidential contender and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks with a supporter at the opening of his first Iowa office in Urbandale, Iowa on Sept. 26, 2015.
Presidential contender and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz speaks with a supporter at the opening of his first Iowa office in Urbandale, Iowa on Sept. 26, 2015.  Patrick Svitek

URBANDALE, Iowa — Ted Cruz, whose six-month run as a presidential candidate has already taken him to states deep into the primary calendar, is now kicking his campaign into high gear in Iowa, the first early voting state. 

But Cruz, who frequently touts the long-term durability of his campaign, is underscoring the effort with two caveats: Ramping up doesn't mean going on a spending spree, and building a state-level organization doesn't mean coasting off short-term momentum. 

"We have been very, very cautious with our expenditure of funds. This is an exceptionally frugal campaign," Cruz told reporters Saturday morning before opening his campaign's first Iowa office in a nondescript business park 15 minutes outside Des Moines.

He defended waiting until after Labor Day to set up the outpost, suggesting it was a deliberate decision informed by the financial woes of the first two candidates to drop out of the race, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. 

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"Both of their campaigns ran out of money because when you spend your money early, you don't have the resources to communicate with voters," Cruz said. "We're committed to not following those mistakes." 

"Every campaign cycle, you have candidates that are the flavor of the month, who skyrocket up in the polls and usually end up going down just as fast," Cruz later told supporters at the office opening. "You know, Scripture talks about building your house on a foundation of rock and not on sand. This campaign is designed to be built on a foundation of rock."

Cruz volunteer Kristi Berg had a few candidates in mind as she listened to Cruz here. "Well, they just go out like a charging bull and they do a lot of talking and they might be high in the polls right now, but they don’t seem to have a lot foundation underneath them," she said.

Cruz's cautious message to Iowans is tailor-made for the current state of the presidential race. Perry and Walker exited the contest when it became clear they could not keep up with the financial demands of building a presidential campaign, gasping for air amid the rise of less-experienced candidates — candidates now working to prove they are more than just a flash in the pan. 

After going through most of the summer with just one paid staffer in Iowa working out of his living room — state director Bryan English — Cruz's campaign is up to four paid staffers in the state — with a new office, to boot. Two staffers have been added in recent weeks, and a few more hires are expected in the near future.

In Iowa, the paid staff is tasked with overseeing a 155-member statewide leadership team that Cruz calls the backbone of his efforts there. 

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"The heart of this campaign is and always will be an army of grassroots volunteers across the state," Cruz told reporters before a speech Saturday evening in Thompson. "We are significantly increasing our paid staff to help coordinate and mobilize the volunteers, but there is no force in politics like the grassroots energized and inspired."

Cruz's paid staff in Iowa — just one measure of a campaign's organization there — is somewhat small compared with that of other candidates taking the state seriously. Donald Trump, the bombastic billionaire who has been polling atop the GOP field in Iowa for months, has 10 paid staffers there. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been placing near Cruz in national surveys but increasingly trailing him in Iowa, has a dozen paid staffers there — and two offices. And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whom the Cruz campaign has long viewed as its biggest competitor for the evangelical vote in places like Iowa, has six paid staffers there. 

Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa GOP, said Cruz is not necessarily lagging behind his competition in Hawkeye State organization. Echoing the way Cruz's campaign views the primary electorate across the country, Strawn nodded to a handful of voting blocs among which Cruz is expected to have the most pull: evangelicals, libertarians and members of the Tea Party. 

"I don’t think it’s too late in the game because most of the other candidates competing in those lanes don’t have the resources to build a robust operation or are relying on super PACs to do the heavy lifting," Strawn said, noting the latter is a relatively untested strategy. 

That's exactly the kind of assessment Cruz backers want to hear. Introducing Cruz at the office opening, influential radio host Steve Deace put a distinctly Iowan spin on it, asking the crowd to imagine if the past two favorites of conservatives coming out of the caucuses had the resources to go the distance. 

"Imagine if Rick Santorum had six months to plan for that primary. Imagine if Mike Huckabee, eight years ago, had a year of fundraising and organization to run a national campaign," said Deace, who has endorsed Cruz. "Maybe we would not have been sentenced to those nominations," he added, referring to John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Cruz's ground game in Iowa is partly built on his outreach to the religious conservatives who make up a large part of the GOP primary electorate in the state. Cruz is endeavoring to recruit a pastor in each of Iowa's 99 counties to run point on his faith outreach. As of Sept. 9, Cruz had filled about a third of the slots.

Cruz is also picking up the pace on his promise to complete the "Full Grassley," or visit all 99 counties of Iowa in a campaign ritual named after the state's senior U.S. senator. On Saturday night, the effort brought him to the Iowa-Minnesota border, where he was able to check Worth County off his list with a brief stop at the Top of Iowa Welcome Center and Rest Area. By the end of the weekend, Cruz still had at least 70 counties to go.

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That's OK, according to Cruz's supporters in the state. They say his slow-but-steady approach has fared well amid a volatile summer that saw Walker plummet from his months-long perch as the GOP's Iowa frontrunner, the beginning of the end for the Wisconsin governor's 2016 hopes.

Within hours after Walker's announcement he was dropping out of the race, Cruz snagged three of the Wisconsin governor's supporters in Iowa, where Walker had boasted of having campaign leaders in all 99 counties. Speaking with reporters Saturday afternoon in Hampton, Cruz boasted how an "awful lot" of former Perry and Walker supporters have jumped to his campaign. 

Among the Walker-to-Cruz converts was Dean Hamilton of Henry County, who said Sunday he was drawn to the senator by Cruz's apparent friendship with Trump — "He's got a narrative I wish the others would pick up on" — and Cruz's ability to unite conservatives once the race gets down to the wire.

Asked about the suggestion Saturday that Cruz was waiting too late to open an Iowa office, Hamilton said the opening was "perfect" timing for a state where many voters are only starting to tune in to the race. 

"The media has obviously been focused on the campaign," Hamilton said, "but contrary to popular belief, Iowans are in the middle right now of taking out corn and soybeans."