DES MOINES, Iowa — About two years ago, Steve King wanted to get to know a new arrival in the U.S. Senate, a man who had previously caught the Iowa congressman's attention while arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of a monument to the Ten Commandments on the Texas capitol grounds.
So King, a fiery conservative with a following stretching far beyond his rural northwest Iowa district, arranged a steak dinner with Ted Cruz, the former Texas solicitor general and by then a freshman senator already gaining a reputation for rancor in the nation's capital. In King's telling, the meal stretched on for five hours, and by the end, waiters had turned off every light in the restaurant except the one over their table.
"You really get to know somebody well in a sit-down like that, face to face, eye to eye," King said while introducing Cruz earlier this month in Sioux City. "I don't know that he didn't want to leave — I didn't. But we finally had to let the waiters go home and see their families. That's the Ted Cruz I know."
By most accounts, the two have since built up a rapport that goes deeper than politics. It is a friendship that will likely be on display Saturday as Cruz joins three other Republican White House hopefuls pheasant hunting in Akron, Iowa. More broadly, though, it could serve as a major stepping-stone for Cruz's 2016 presidential ambitions in a critical early voting state where King's endorsement is highly coveted among candidates such as Cruz.
"Among Iowa’s elected officials, [King] has more gravitas with the conservative grassroots than anybody else does," said Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host backing Cruz. "When it’s clear your path to the nomination is to successfully coalesce and consolidate the conservative vote, that would certainly be a plus in that pursuit."
King would arguably be one of the two biggest gets in the state for a White House hopeful like Cruz. The other is Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Iowa-based social conservative group The Family Leader and another GOP kingmaker who has spoken highly of Cruz but not yet endorsed.
Among some Iowa Republicans, King is seen as a natural match for Cruz, a fellow conservative firebrand and occasional outsider within his own party. Some of King's allies are already working to put Cruz in the White House, an observation that recently led one Iowa Republican to call King's eventual endorsement of Cruz the "worst-kept secret" in the state.
"No one will be surprised if Steve King endorses Ted Cruz. In fact, we all expect Steve King to endorse Ted Cruz," said Jamie Johnson, a social conservative activist from Iowa who worked on Rick Perry's 2016 presidential campaign.
In an interview Friday, King said he hopes to make an endorsement in the 2016 race but could not provide a timeline. "The timing on that can only be when the conviction arrives," he added, noting that he counts all 15 candidates in the GOP field as friends. Also set to accompany King on the pheasant hunt Saturday are former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
There have been signs that Cruz's team is confident it will eventually win King's backing. On Friday, however, an aide said the campaign is taking nothing for granted and "aggressively going after King's endorsement" like it does that of any potential supporter.
"We're not operating under any assumptions, and we're making our pitch," the aide said. "We expect other campaigns are doing the same."
In Iowa, Cruz's presidential effort already has a number of ties to King. Bryan English, a former aide to the congressman, is running Cruz's campaign in the Hawkeye State. Jeff King, the lawmaker's son and political adviser, is working for a pro-Cruz super PAC. And among Cruz's endorsers in Iowa is state Sen. Bill Anderson, a policy adviser to King.
On Friday, King brushed off the significance of the connections, saying people tried to read the same tea leaves during the 2012 race. "That's what they said four years ago too, and I didn't make an endorsement," the congressman said.
During the 2008 primary, King backed former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who went on to finish a distant third in the Iowa caucuses. King sat out the next presidential election cycle, despite "dangling the carrot of an endorsement in front of several candidates," said Johnson, who was working for Santorum at the time. "That left a very bad taste in everyone's mouth."
In the 2016 race, King has been a regular presence on the campaign trail, especially at Cruz's major events in Iowa, which have included a high-profile speech, titled "Believe Again," in June at Drake University and a religious liberty rally in August in Des Moines. At the rally in Sioux City, King spoke affectionately of Cruz, not only recalling the steak dinner in detail but also how Cruz was the only senator who showed up at a marathon news conference he held in 2013 to rally opposition to immigration reform legislation.
In Congress, King is among the House Republicans Cruz occasionally huddles with behind closed doors, perhaps most notably at the Capitol Hill watering hole Tortilla Coast during the 2013 government shutdown. At the rally in Sioux City, King said he occasionally takes heat from his colleagues for letting a senator "stick his nose" into House business but always defends Cruz's involvement.
At such events, Cruz likes to return King's praise with a reliable laughter line, first asking crowds to remember how children wear Superman pajamas and then invoking a famous Texan. "Well," Cruz likes to say, "Superman has Chuck Norris pajamas, and Chuck Norris has Steve King pajamas."
In the interview, King singled out Cruz for speaking out most among the candidates for one of his priorities: the need for more conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Stumping in Iowa, Cruz has been especially vocal on the topic, warning at the religious liberty rally that the country is "one justice away from the Supreme Court saying every image of God shall be torn down."
It may take a while to see whether Cruz's overtures to King pay off. In an interview earlier this month, Jeff King said his dad will make up his mind on his own time line.
“I guarantee," the younger King added, "he will not tell me who he’s going to [endorse] or if he’s going to until he tells the world."