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In Quest for Evangelicals, Cruz Has Encountered Headwinds

A year ago, Ted Cruz launched his presidential campaign promising to unite evangelical voters more than any candidate has done before. While he has made major progress, the path to consolidating support from the influential voting bloc has not been easy.

U.S. senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz at the Rally for Religious Liberty in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 21, 2015.

When Ted Cruz announced he was running for president on March 23, 2015, it was no accident that he chose to do so at Liberty University, a Christian college in Virginia founded 44 years ago by iconic pastor Jerry Falwell. 

"God's blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation," Cruz declared, "and I believe God isn't done with America yet."

One of the central goals of Cruz's campaign was made clear that day: consolidating support from the religious right, an ambitious undertaking made no easier as the Republican field grew to 17 candidates in the weeks following. 

By most measures, the Texas senator has built the broadest support in the evangelical community of any Republican presidential candidate, and to this day he remains the top choice of the most politically engaged members of that community. Yet Cruz's pursuit of the influential voting bloc has not been easy — and some segments remain reluctant to rally around him even as he emerges as the chief alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump. 

"The term 'evangelical' has become very elastic in that it’s almost taken the place of 'Protestant,'" said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who endorsed Cruz in January. "It almost describes any conservative who believes in God, and that’s just not what evangelical is. Look at voters who attended church on a weekly basis. Those voters are going for Ted Cruz."

Under that definition, Perkins added, Cruz "has pretty much captured that voting bloc and increased their turnout."

Still, no other development has complicated Cruz's efforts to win over the faithful as much as the rise of Trump, who consistently outpolls Cruz among evangelicals despite a long list of actions, positions and statements seemingly out of step with the Christian faith. For example, it was Trump who ultimately won the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the university where Cruz strategically launched his campaign.

In the 20 states so far where CNN has conducted entrance or exit polling, Trump has bested Cruz in 13 of them among voters who identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christian, with an average margin of 18 points. Cruz has placed above Trump in six of them, with an average margin of 12 points. They tied for the group in one state, Arkansas. 

Even to even some of Cruz's supporters, the trend is not shocking: Like any voting bloc, evangelicals are not immune to national trends, and one of the most prominent at the moment is a strong aversion to Washington, D.C., and all it represents. That's the theory of Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor who has spoken at Trump rallies and expressed support for the billionaire but not formally endorsed him. 

"I think one of the phenomena that's at work here is really only Donald Trump can claim outsider status compared to Cruz and Rubio," Jeffress said in an interview earlier this month, when U.S. Sen Marco Rubio was still a candidate. "For all their talk of being outsiders, they're still part of that elite group known as the U.S. Senate."

"Interestingly, I think Cruz and Rubio thought the Senate would be a stepping stone to the White House," Jeffress said. "The Senate is becoming a millstone that might keep them out of the White House."

Cruz has tried various tactics to consolidate evangelical support. In states such as Iowa and South Carolina, he sought to recruit a supportive pastor in every county and held highly produced religious liberty rallies featuring speakers with personal tales of discrimination due to their religious beliefs. He formed a national prayer team, whose members receive weekly emails with prayer requests and participate in weekly conference calls, some of which Cruz has joined. In January, he convened hundreds of pastors and faith leaders at the West Texas ranch of Dan and Farris Wilks, two of the most generous givers to his presidential effort. And his campaign boasts of a Faith and Religious Liberty Coalition with more than 46,000 members.

Most recently, Cruz launched a 19-member Religious Liberty Advisory Council, which Perkins chairs. On Thursday, the group issued 15 initial recommendations for a Cruz administration, including an executive order to keep the federal government from discriminating based on one's marriage beliefs and a proposal to let employers out of a federal mandate that they provide contraceptive coverage to women. Cruz's campaign swiftly released a statement welcoming the ideas.

Perhaps the biggest validation Cruz received was his victory in Iowa, where he beat Trump by a few points overall but by 12 points among evangelicals, according to CNN exit polling. The triumph, according to Cruz's supporters, sent a clear message to those in the evangelical community who were still uncertain of Cruz's ability not only to win but also to unite the faithful. Cruz had the backing of arguably the two most influential social conservatives in the state, U.S. Rep. Steve King and Family Leader CEO Bobby Vander Plaats, whom he elevated to national co-chairs of his campaign a month before the caucuses. 

"Winning in Iowa just brought the theory he had put forth — that he could make this happen — to reality in the minds of many who were just waiting to see," Perkins said. "I think Iowa was very big for him."

Yet it was also Iowa where Cruz's campaign was accused of spreading false rumors about Ben Carson dropping out, which gave way to a drumbeat of criticism that he is running a dishonest campaign, hurting his image among evangelicals. The drumbeat was perhaps loudest in the run-up to the South Carolina primary, when he faced a battery of charges of "dirty tricks" from a number of rivals.

The storm of controversy took a toll on Cruz, whose campaign was viewed as the most unfair by nearly a third of voters in the Palmetto State, second only to Trump's in exit polling. Cruz sought to stem the bleeding a week later when he fired Rick Tyler, his top spokesman who had shared on Twitter a video that falsely purported to show Rubio denigrating the Bible. 

Trump has seized upon the dishonesty charge, routinely referring to Cruz as "Lyin' Ted" — including in a tweet Tuesday that attacked the senator's wife. In interviews and speeches, the billionaire regularly cites Cruz's alleged dishonesty as the reason he consistently outpolls the senator among evangelicals, despite Cruz's aggressive outreach to them. 

"You don’t have to be one of us to get our vote — you just can’t lie to us," said Hogan Gidley, a South Carolina GOP strategist who worked for one of Cruz's former rivals, Mike Huckabee.

The former Arkansas governor, who bowed out of the race as soon as he lost Iowa, and his allies took an intense interest in Cruz in the final month before the caucuses, seeking to undercut his evangelical support. They highlighted how Cruz wants to effectively leave questions of marriage and abortion up to the states, and they suggested he had not given enough of his personal income to charity, a practice known in the church as tithing. 

More privately, they spoke of Cruz as strong-arming his way into becoming the seeming consensus choice of faith leaders.

"I talk to enough pastors in South Carolina, I talk to enough pastors in Iowa, who are completely turned off by his heavy-handed tactics to try and get them to support him," Gidley said. "It’s basically trying to pressure a pastor into believing Ted Cruz is somehow the 13th Apostle and that this country’s going to hell without him at the helm and then being upset and angry if that pastor doesn’t just sign on immediately without asking any questions.”

Cruz has encountered particular resistance from Hispanic evangelicals turned off by his positions on immigration, which have only grown more hardline as he has vied with Trump on the issue. Some drew a line when he made clearer than ever in December that he does not support any form of legalization for people in the country illegally. Since then, Cruz has positioned himself farther to the right of Trump on immigration, criticizing the billionaire for supporting the re-entry of people to the United States who have been deported. 

Tony Suarez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, gave Cruz credit for assembling a diverse coalition of evangelical supporters but cautioned that the issue of immigration is "not going away." 

“Hispanic evangelicals are torn right now," said Suarez, who meets occasionally with a group of other prominent Latino Republicans to discuss the presidential race. "You have Trump, who wants to build walls and deport everybody. Then you have Cruz, who wants to build walls and have everybody leave."

"They are on the sidelines," Suarez added. "There was a lot of Hispanic evangelical support for Rubio and for Bush. Now what do you do here?"

Going forward in the nominating process, Cruz's side sees some uncertainty when it comes to the evangelical vote. With the senator vowing to fight Trump until the convention, many states that have previously not had much influence in picking the GOP nominee will have a say. It's in those states, Perkins explained, that evangelicals are naturally not as politically engaged as they are, for example, in Iowa and South Carolina.

The first test could come April 5, when the next state, Wisconsin, holds its primary in what is shaping up to be another critical moment in the anti-Trump movement. Voters who identified as born-again or evangelical Christian helped propel Mitt Romney to victory in the Badger State in the previous Republican presidential primary, supporting him 47 percent to 43 percent over Rick Santorum. 

"I'll tell ya," Cruz said while stumping there Friday, "Wisconsin is a battleground right now." 

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