World·CBC in Iowa

Ted Cruz, likable or not, wins over Christian Iowans

In the world of big-stage U.S. presidential politics, the Iowa caucuses deal in a rare commodity: intimacy. That matters for Ted Cruz, particularly as he faces scrutiny about whether he's likable enough to win a general election.

'Widely loathed' Texas Republican senator has a prayer in evangelical Iowa

Photographers take pictures of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz as he hugs his wife, Heidi Cruz, moments before the Texas senator was introduced to speak at 3 Generations Bar & Grill in Ringsted, Iowa, on Friday. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Ted Cruz nailed his punchlines. His applause lines landed, too. As he did throughout the day at subsequent Iowa stump appearances on Friday, he wrapped the same speech with a prayerful recitation from 2 Chronicles in the Old Testament, a winning choice for the predominantly evangelical Christian crowd.

Then, as he was leaving the North Side Café in Fenton, three hours north of Des Moines, Cruz came upon a baby.

Melvin and Jeanie McElwee, farmers in northwest Iowa, say they like Ted Cruz for his Christian values and conservative consistency. 'He stands for what I believe in,' Melvin says. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Congratulations. She's beautiful," the Republican senator from Texas said, gamely posing for a photo at the parents' request. He moved on.

The infant's mother, Allison Gisch, smiled but held back on correcting the presidential candidate. Her eight-week-old, Mason, is a boy.

Nobody's perfect. Not even Cruz, the Calgary-born son of a pastor whose know-it-all demeanour and persnickety command over constitutional law have rubbed Senate colleagues the wrong way.

'Nobody likes him'

Still, the moment with Baby Mason was something. Gisch and her husband, Ethan, a pig farmer, decided that after listening to what the Tea Party firebrand had to say, they were Cruz supporters and would vote for him on caucus night.

Ethan and Allison Gisch with baby son Mason were won over by Ted Cruz. 'Seemed very down to earth,' says Allison. (Ethan and Allison Gisch)

"I think he was definitely very personable. Seemed very down-to-earth," Gisch, a nurse, said afterward. "I don't know why they say what they say. I like him."

In the world of big-stage U.S. presidential politics, the Iowa caucuses deal in a rare commodity: gestures of intimacy.

For Cruz, who trails Republican front-runner Donald Trump by just seven points in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal Iowa poll, these moments matter — particularly as he faces scrutiny about whether he's likable enough to win a general election.

"Nobody likes him," 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole said last week of Cruz, who orchestrated a 2013 government shutdown in an attempt to block Obamacare.

"That jackass" was the way former Speaker of the House John Boehner described him at a Colorado fundraiser, according to people who overheard the remark.

Arizona Senator John McCain dismissed him as a "wacko bird," and Cruz's freshman roommate at Princeton, Craig Mazin, so despised him that he declared: "I would rather have anybody else be the president of the United States. Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book."

'Widely loathed'

Cruz is "widely loathed" in political circles, says Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.
Cruz gives his stump speech at the North Star Café in Fenton, Iowa. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"If the president wants to make an address, the networks will give it to him. He'll come to your den, your living room," he said. "People generally say, 'Is this somebody you want coming into your living room for four years?'"

The political nature of Iowa's first-in-the-nation test for presidential contenders is such that voters get to meet candidates face-to-face, often in small settings. The set-up reduces political contests to a human scale. It's why Iowans might see Rick Santorum saunter into a Des Moines bar one night — as he did after Thursday's Fox News debate — and throw back a Guinness, talk football with patrons, then implore his new chums to caucus for him.

Rick Santorum had a Guinness with likely caucus-goers at Mickey’s Irish Pub in Waukee, Iowa, on Thursday night after he debated at the Fox News undercard debate. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Contrast that with Cruz, who relishes being an outsider and boasts of rejecting the "Washington cartel."

"He's admitted he's not the guy you want to have a beer with. He's made that a selling point," Goldford says. "When Cruz is despised by even mainstream moderate and conservative Republicans, he wears that as a badge of honour."

Closing with a prayer

Here in northwest Iowa, the cradle of Christian social conservatism for the state, voters like him for another reason.

"He closed with a prayer," said Joy Anderson, who secured a front-row seat at Ringsted's 3 Generations Bar & Grill.

Kathleen Graves, centre, a teacher in northeast Iowa who attended Cruz’s stump speech in Ringsted, is an an undecided voter and Democrat. She challenged Cruz on his opposition to ethanol subsidies.

By the end of Cruz's stump speech — which generally concludes with an anecdote about Ronald Reagan taking the oath of office with his left hand on 2 Chronicles, and a plea to "bring back that shining city on the hill" — Anderson was moved to tears.

This, according to longtime Des Moines political columnist David Yepsen, captures why Cruz can win here.

"He's courted good endorsement from evangelicals and social conservative leaders. Those are important constituencies in a caucus fight," says Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

'I just don't like that guy'

And yet, perhaps no other senator squirms under colleagues' skin quite like Cruz.

He's smugly principled, a brilliant debater and a polished speaker. His uncompromising nature has earned him few friends in Washington.

"I just don't like that guy," his old boss George W. Bush reportedly said to a roomful of donors in October about Cruz, once a junior staffer for the former president.

Cruz has apparently taken the shots in stride, joking at an Iowa campaign stop in November that he might need a food taster in the Senate dining room.

Despite his rejection of ethanol subsidies, Cruz is gaining respect among some farmers in rural Iowa for his socially conservative values and solid faith credentials. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

That devil-may-care attitude may play well for Cruz's image as a rabble-rouser who refuses to drag conservative Christian values into what he calls the "mushy middle," according to Yepsen.

"Likability is important to winning the votes of people, but I think electability is an issue, too," Yepsen says. "Everybody knows Cruz rubs people the wrong way, but he's used that as proof he's not part of the political establishment, and that has appeal to a lot of people. It sort of certifies him."

Won't back down

Even among corn-growers in a pub that was practically set in the shadows of an enormous row of grain bins, Cruz offered no popular answers about what many consider to be the state's economic lifeblood.

Asked by teacher and farmer Kathleen Graves about his opposition to corn ethanol subsidies, he refused to back down, saying Iowa shouldn't depend on D.C. subsidies.

Farmer Melvin McElwee, 60, interpreted it as a refusal to pander to Iowans — and he respected it.

"Even though I farm and I should be against the [ethanol] mandates being taken out, I believe the direction he's going to take us, with getting rid of the subsidy, I believe that's the right path," McElwee said. "When you have a sense of self-discipline and responsibility, a lot of people don't like that. It's easy to be wishy-washy and oh, let's get-along."

In the days leading up to caucus night, though, it's likely Cruz will need to tie his electability to some measure of likability.

When one Duck Dynasty watcher approached him to say she enjoyed his TV ad featuring an endorsement from the reality show's Phil Robertson, Cruz thanked her. But instead of moving along with the glad-handing, he indulged her fandom.

"Duck hunting with Phil Robertson is one of the coolest things of the entire presidential campaign," he told her, leaning in. "Tell you what — that man can shoot."

In the Iowa caucus horse race, it seems, personality matters as much as policy. Like it or not.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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