On the hunt with Ted Cruz

If polarizing senator from Texas has split the GOP, some Iowa Republicans are now on his side

Sen. Ted Cruz R-Texas, right, is followed by media during a hunt hosted by Rep. Steve King R-Iowa, in Akron, Iowa, Saturday.
Nati Harnik/AP

AKRON, IA – Opening day of pheasant hunting season in Iowa found Ted Cruz a long way away from his native state.

Shortly after sunrise, the Republican Senator from Texas descended the staircase at the Hole N' the Wall Lodge, dressed head-to-toe in khaki, with only the toes of his cowboy boots peeking out.

Rep. Steve King, the firebrand congressman representing this district in rural northwestern Iowa who has taken to hosting up-and-coming conservative politicians on pheasant hunts, was there waiting, with an entourage of a dozen other hunters.

All were wearing prodigious amounts of neon orange.

“So you don’t get shot!”  explained one hunter, as an orange vest was procured for the Senator.

“There’s all kinds of birds out there, Ted, and it’s a record hatch. It’s a perfect morning, the temperature’s just right,” King said. “There’s nothing more eager than a bird dog on opening day except maybe you and me.”

Sen. Cruz, center right, and Rep. Steve King, R-Ia., far left, bow their heads to pray for no Cheney-like 'accidents' before a hunt.
Naureen Khan for Al Jazeera America

Cruz, fresh off receiving a warm reception for his speech at the Ronald Reagan fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party in Des Moines where he was the keynote speaker, confessed to never having tried his hand at hunting pheasant before, although he said had shot quail, dove and duck. 

Asked if he, like 2011’s pheasant hunt guest of honor Texas Gov. Rick Perry before him, was in Iowa preparing for a presidential run, Cruz demurred. “That’s a very dangerous comparison on a lot of fronts, not least of which is Gov. Perry is a lot better shot than I am.”

Despite the unfamiliarity of the game, the early hour, a packed two-day schedule in the Hawkeye State and at least one entreaty to avoid being “Cheney-ed,” Cruz had reason to have spring in his step.

For the moment at least, Iowa is Cruz country — not inconsequential given the state’s outsized role in selecting presidential nominees and the buzz building around a possible presidential run by the freshman Senator. It was Cruz’s third visit to Iowa this year, but the first since he spearheaded a failed effort to tie budget and debt ceiling negotiations to defunding the Affordable Care Act.

Although in the rest of the Republican Party, there is much hand-wringing about the damage the 16-day shutdown and near-breach of the debt ceiling — a strategy championed largely by Cruz and House conservatives — has done to the party’s standing and what few policy concessions the GOP was able to secure at the end of the ordeal, Cruz has a decidedly different take on events.

In Cruz’s telling, the shutdown strategy was not a failure for the GOP because it alerted people to the dangers of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and energized grassroots activists. Never mind the drubbing Republicans are taking in polls or, as Cruz conceded, that the law remains in place.

“I’m convinced that we are facing a new paradigm in politics. It is the rise of the grassroots, and it has official Washington absolutely terrified,” Cruz told the approximately 600 Republicans at the Ronald Reagan dinner. “But this new paradigm has been beta tested, unlike the Obamacare website. It was beta tested with the Reagan revolution.”

Since joining the Senate at the start of this year, Cruz has few traditional legislative accomplishments. But from the senator's perspective, blocking bipartisan background-check legislation and comprehensive immigration reform have been significant victories for conservatives. This perception seems to run contrary to polling that shows broad support for background checks, and warnings from party elders about the urgent need for the GOP to expand its appeal to Hispanic voters.

“What complete poppycock,” Cruz said of softening stances to win elections.

In Cruz’s estimation, too, the infighting within the Republican Party on tactics and policy is a creation of the media and others who wish the GOP harm. Never mind Cruz’s repeated knocks at Senate colleagues for their decision “not to unite and stand side by side with House Republicans” and his insistence that they were the reason the strategy to defund the ACA failed. 

“Those who talk about the so-called rift tend to be folks who wish ill upon us,” Cruz told reporters. “They tend to be people like Democrats trying to stir up trouble.”

But if there is indeed a civil war within the Republican Party, in Iowa, it appears many conservative activists and donors have chosen their side — the side of more ideological purity, not less. And that is a big part of Cruz’s appeal in the state.

“I’d like to share with you the one thing that party establishment considers a dirty word: principle,” said Iowa GOP chairman A.J. Spiker in introductory remarks at the Reagan dinner. “[Ted Cruz] has done what I believe is the mark of a truly principled man: he has done what’s right even when it meant opposing leadership of his own political party.”

Christian activist Steve Scheffler, in the prayer before the fundraiser, asked for more leaders who were willing to “be crucified for their belief system.”

Although several Iowa Republicans said it was far too soon to make a decision on who they would be rooting for in the 2016 primaries, they also said Cruz had shown tremendous promise.

“Somebody had to do something and he’s unflappable. He kept right on talking,” said Judith Koski, 71, referring to Cruz’s 21-hour speech before the shutdown. “He believes in limited government, what’s extreme about that?”

Her husband, Melvin, chimed in, “In that bunch of blockheads, it’s hard to get anything done.”

Nicole Cleveland, 28, said she believed that Cruz had been unfairly pilloried by the media and his congressional colleagues, but that made her like him even more.

“He took the brunt of the government shutdown blame but I thank him for standing up for my children’s future,” she said. “He’s shaken up D.C. and D.C. needed shaking up. We have a lot of people who have gone with the status quo and listened to other establishment people, other lobbyists, their biggest contributors, instead of listening to the American people.”

Bob Embree, 60, who said he had hoped that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would get into the 2012 race, was even more effusive in his praise.

“He’s our Ronald Reagan,” he said. “He speaks from the heart, he’s got conviction.”

As for Cruz, he could not complain about his first pheasant hunt. Speaking at an event before he got back on a plane to Texas to attend his daughter’s third birthday party, he joked:

“There are some birds we scared the living daylights out of. Those birds are going to be in therapy for years.”

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