CISCO — For two days, this tiny town about two hours west of Dallas became the center of Ted Cruz's political universe.
With a month left until Iowa’s caucuses, the Republican presidential candidate hunkered down in Cisco, courting hundreds of evangelical leaders Monday and then a more familiar crowd Tuesday: his own constituents.
Many did not need persuading by the time the Texas senator stepped on stage for a Tuesday night rally. Cruz was introduced by a Cisco mayor who seemed to still be processing the senator's presence in his city, perhaps best-known for the person its main drag was named for: Conrad Hilton built his first hotel here in 1919.
More recently, though, this dot on the map has been equated with a different name: that of the billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, whose names grace the community center Cruz spoke at — as well as the dotted line on a $15 million donation to Cruz's presidential effort.
Speaking with reporters before the rally capping his two days in Cisco, Cruz heaped praise on the brothers, lauding their contributions to the oil industry in Texas as well as Christian activism throughout the country.
“They’re people for whom their faith is very important, and they’ve been willing to devote their resources to fighting for principles of religious liberty, fighting to defend life, fighting to defend marriage, fighting to defend the constitutional liberties on which this country is founded," Cruz told reporters. "Their entire family is focused on pulling this country back from the brink, from the relentless assault we’ve seen on constitutional liberties and Judeo-Christian values."
Cruz added that the brothers have been "very, very supportive" in helping raise money for Cruz's campaign and working for the main super PACs supporting him. One of those four groups, Keep the Promise III, was a key player in the Cisco festivities, a kind of manifestation of both the relatively newfound convening power of megadonors as well as the sometimes blurry mix of campaign and super PAC activities in a post-Citizens United era.
Cruz's Cisco sojourn was highlighted by a private meeting Monday with roughly 300 pastors and faith leaders, an introduction of sorts to many — but also an effort to lock up support as the 2016 race kicks into high gear. The guest list was held close to the vest, but some of those invited made public their attendance and returned rave reviews.
"Frankly, the finest presentation I ever heard from a candidate," tweeted Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Before the rally, the Cruz family hosted a fundraiser at the community center that the Wilks were expected to attend. Sitting outside the room was another ode to the prominent hosts: a large placard reading, "A special thanks from Heidi & Ted Cruz to our hosts The Wilks Family."
Addressing a crowd of well over 500 later Tuesday night, Cruz mostly stuck to his stump speech but sprinkled in fodder for the home-state crowd, greeting it with two words he said are "forbidden" in the nation's capital: "Merry Christmas." He also promised to ease federal regulations on the energy industry that is the heart of his home state's economy.
Cruz put in his standard plug for the "SEC primary," repeating his refrain that delegate-rich Texas will be the "crown jewel" of the mostly southern states set to hold their nominating contests on March 1.
"They're all conservative states. They're military veterans, they're gun owners, they love America, they fear God and they cannot stand what Barack Obama has done to his country," Cruz said to a standing ovation.
Supporters said Cruz's appearance in Cisco is in keeping with not taking his home state for granted, even as the first few early voting states capture more of his attention.
At events like the one in Cisco, "we see that he’s not so high up we can’t get to him," said Kischla Mitchell, a longtime Cruz supporter from Weatherford. "I think he's got a lot of Texas to fall back on, and they're going to support him."