Ted Cruz is convening hundreds of evangelical leaders in West Texas as he seeks to consolidate support from the influential voting bloc with one month to go until the presidential nominating contests begin.
The Republican candidate is set to privately meet with roughly 300 pastors and faith leaders Monday in Cisco, a tiny city about two hours west of Dallas, at a ranch owned by Dan and Farris Wilks, billionaire brothers who rank as two of the biggest donors to Cruz's presidential effort.
The Texas senator spoke briefly about the summit while campaigning Tuesday in Arkansas, calling it another opportunity to unite conservatives — "our strategy from day one."
"We are meeting with a great many evangelical leaders from across the country," Cruz told reporters before a rally in North Little Rock. "We'll be meeting with them in West Texas, having a chance just for some fellowship, to visit back and forth."
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"Some of them are supporting us already," Cruz added. "Others we're hoping will be supporting us, and we'll have a frank and candid conversation."
The meeting is being organized at least in part by Keep the Promise PAC, one of four main super PACs supporting Cruz. Keep the Promise PAC is headed by David Barton, an influential Christian activist and author who formerly served as the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.
Laura Barnett, a spokeswoman for Keep the Promise PAC, said the meeting is "designed as an open dialogue with Sen. Cruz and an opportunity to listen to and learn from one another." A guest list was unavailable Saturday, but Barnett said the number of RSVPs far exceeded organizers' expectations and those attending "represent a diverse cross-section of the faith community."
Throughout December, Cruz's campaign steadily racked up endorsements from a number of prominent conservative figures, many of them with sway in the evangelical community. They have included U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa; Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.
While the Cisco gathering is expected to include some of the endorsers, it will also serve as an introduction to Cruz for many of the participants, Barton said. "For many, many of these guys, this will their first contact" with Cruz, Barton added.
As they have thrown their support behind Cruz, conservative leaders have urged like-minded activists to follow their lead, hoping to avoid previous elections in which their support was diluted among a number of candidates. As recently as two months ago, Barton said, evangelical support was split among five or six candidates, but now it is "coalescing very rapidly" around Cruz — with plenty of room to grow.
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"We still find there are many, many folks who still do not know he is a man of faith or his faith story," Barton said. "As that gets out, I expect there'll be even more consolidation."
Among those attending the Cisco summit who are not yet sold on Cruz will be Samuel Rodriguez, a California-based pastor who heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Rodriguez said he wants to hear more from Cruz about how he plans to broaden his support in the evangelical community to Latinos and African Americans.
"Engaging white evangelicals is nice and it's wonderful, but it doesn't get you across the goal line. It doesn't," Rodriguez said. "Ask Mitt Romney and ask John McCain. White evangelical support for the GOP does not equal occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
Rodriguez suggested Cruz has made that task even harder with his recent clarification that he does not support legalization for the estimated 12 million people in the country illegally. As a result of that "immigration pivot," Rodriguez said, he is personally heading to Cisco with a "significant amount of angst."
The meeting also will take Cruz into the backyard of the Wilks brothers, who have given $15 million to a super PAC backing Cruz, the largest known single-family donation in support of a presidential candidate so far this election cycle. The brothers, who made their fortunes in the fracking boom, are said to be driven to politics by their socially conservative views.
"Family is what creates a strong nation, a strong community and without that, you know, I don't think we'll continue as a nation very long," Farris Wilks said in a rare interview that aired last month on KTXS, the ABC affiliate in Abilene. Of Cruz, Farris Wilks said the senator is "not afraid to stand against some of his own party even and say things that need to be said."
Cruz's trip to Cisco will culminate Tuesday evening with a private fundraiser then a public rally, both to be held with the senator's family at a community center the Wilkses helped build. The fundraiser, which begins at 5 p.m., costs between $500 and $2,700 to attend. The rally is set to start two hours later, following a concert by the Newsboys, a Christian rock band.
"We are thrilled for Texas son Sen. Cruz to spend time in the Big Country,” Barton said in a news release announcing the Cisco events earlier this month. "Voters here understand and appreciate Sen. Cruz’s hard-working, constitutionally conservative values."