With a splintered battle for establishment support brewing in New Hampshire, Ted Cruz's presidential campaign is planning a late push for votes that could lead to a stronger showing than expected in the state's early primary.
Cruz's campaign is well aware his fire-breathing brand of evangelically tinged conservatism has not traditionally been an ideal fit for the Granite State, whose GOP voters tend to be more moderate than those in Iowa. But as he closes in on the Feb. 9 primary, his campaign, allies and supporters say they are sensing an opportunity to beat expectations — potentially as the beneficiary of the establishment free-for-all.
"There’s a handful of establishment candidates here that need to do well, and they’re splitting up that vote while Sen. Cruz is going to coalesce conservatives," said Ethan Zorfas, Cruz's state director in New Hampshire.
The No. 1 spot in New Hampshire is still far out of reach for Cruz. For some time, billionaire Donald Trump has held a double-digit lead in the state, most recently beating a second-place Cruz by 18 points in a Monmouth University poll released Monday.
"Trump will win New Hampshire, but I can see a scenario where Ted Cruz comes in a strong second," said Mike Dennehy, an unaffiliated Republican strategist in New Hampshire who worked for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2016 presidential campaign. "It’s almost silly that you’ve got [Marco] Rubio, [John] Kasich, [Jeb] Bush and [Chris] Christie all fighting together, trying desperately to knock a few points off each other and gain those points."
"Run up the middle might not be the right term to use," Dennehy joked, alluding to Cruz's ideological leanings, but he said that “no one’s going after Ted Cruz, and his image is in very good shape here."
Cruz is set to return to New Hampshire for the first time in two months on Tuesday, and he'll start a bus tour of all 10 counties in the state several days later. Last week, his campaign opened a residence in the Manchester area for volunteers from across New England that it says is already near capacity. And while the candidate himself has not been on New Hampshire soil since November, 10 paid staffers have been working the ground in his absence.
The hyper-competitive Cruz never planned to cede New Hampshire — he would compete on Mars if he could, a campaign official recently joked — but advisers debated how much money, specifically advertising dollars, to commit to the state. The campaign signaled a not-insignificant commitment last week when it launched its first major TV ad buy aimed at New Hampshire, airing a minute-long spot that imagines the immigration debate if people entering the country were not mostly low-wage workers.
The Cruz campaign sees an opening with New Hampshire libertarians, especially as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, son of libertarian icon Ron Paul, continues to register in the single digits. And while evangelicals do not make up as much as the primary electorate in New Hampshire as they do in the Iowa caucuses, the voting bloc could be a factor in a crowded field if Cruz emerges from Iowa as their consensus candidate.
The latest promising New Hampshire news for Cruz arrived Monday, when all five staffers in the state on the payroll of a pro-Ben Carson super PAC quit to volunteer for the Texas senator. The exodus included Jerry Sickels, who said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, was not paying enough attention to the state and had struggled to adapt to a primary increasingly shaped by foreign policy.
It did not hurt that Cruz has become a more unifying figure among conservatives in the Granite State, Sickels said, nodding to the dustups between more moderate candidates. Usually, he added, "it's been the conservatives who cut each other up. This dynamic is reversed this year."
Cruz has not gone entirely unscathed in the state, where some of his GOP rivals have taken notice of his relatively long absence — 61 days, to be exact. Trump has taken to questioning Cruz's commitment to the state, saying in a recent TV interview there that the Texas senator has "all his onions in the basket of Iowa" and he does not think Cruz "intends to be here very much." Rubio's campaign, meanwhile, has slighted Cruz while arguing the Florida senator is the only GOP candidate with a path to victory in each of the first four early voting states.
"I think it’s very important that from the last debate on forward that the candidates make an attempt to come and talk to the voters. I think that’s going to be a detriment to Sen. Cruz," said New Hampshire state Sen. Regina Birdsell, a co-chair of Rubio's campaign in the state. "I think Sen. Cruz has been polling third or fourth in New Hampshire. That may be the reason."
Cruz routinely insists he's "all in" in the first few early voting states and beyond. Campaign officials laugh off the idea he is writing off New Hampshire, pointing to the combination of heavy travel in January, which falls just days before the Iowa caucuses; the volunteer residence, which is similar to an effort by the campaign in the Hawkeye State; and the TV advertising.
Cruz's growing focus on New Hampshire was evident as he wrapped up a six-day, 28-county bus tour of Iowa on Saturday evening. Speaking with reporters before his final event, Cruz amended his usual refrain on the importance of retail campaigning to send a warning shot at any GOP opponent who thinks he is not taking seriously the second early voting state.
"I don't believe any candidate will win the state of Iowa — and I don't believe any candidate will win the state of New Hampshire — from a TV studio in Washington, D.C., or in Manhattan," Cruz said. "The only way to compete and win in these primaries is on the ground, showing the respect and humility that the voters demand, answering their questions and withstanding the hard scrutiny of the voters."
Cruz's one-day return to New Hampshire on Tuesday is set to include two events in the afternoon, a Second Amendment-themed rally at a gun range in Hudson and a town hall at a high school in Londonderry. Cruz's bus tour of all 10 counties in the Granite State is expected to begin Sunday and last through Thursday.