WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz’s supporters donned Santa Claus hats and boarded tinsel-covered campaign floats last weekend to pass out candy in Christmas parades in Georgia and Tennessee. He dispatched his father, a 76-year-old Baptist preacher, to win over pastors last week at a North Carolina church and a South Carolina pancake house.
For months, the Texas Republican senator has quietly laid the groundwork throughout the South, as he hopes to move from a strong showing in Iowa’s caucuses to wins in crucial Bible Belt states, including South Carolina, which votes Feb. 20, and a string of Southern states that vote March 1.
The latest glimpse of his strategy to target arch-conservative voters came this week, when Cruz offered only muted disagreement with Donald Trump’s call to close the borders to Muslims and refused to join the other Republican candidates in denouncing Trump for the idea.
A new poll Monday showed Cruz seizing the lead from Trump in Iowa. Nationally, Cruz has jumped into a statistical tie for second place, along with Senator Marco Rubio of Florida , as Ben Carson’s standing has faltered.
“Cruz has got a lot better path to the nomination than a lot of people know of,” said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi GOP strategist who is unaffiliated with any campaign, noting that nearly 500 delegates are up for grabs in the half a dozen conservative states from Georgia to Texas that vote March 1. “Cruz is doing a better job than most in those states.’’
His message of God, guns, and liberty is especially appealing in the Deep South, where evangelical Christians are between 57 and 80 percent of GOP primary voters.
In New Hampshire, the first primary state, where only 21 percent of GOP primary voters identify as white evangelicals, Cruz remains mired in the lower ranks of candidates despite 13 visits to the state.
Cruz supporters say he has been carefully preparing for a Southern surge. He launched his campaign at a Christian university in Virginia. His first ads ran on Easter Sunday, on Christian-related broadcasts. He is the only candidate to have swept through a large swath of the South, on a seven-day, seven-state trip in August that his campaign dubbed the #CruzCountry Bus Tour.
Cruz has a campaign chairman in nearly every county in Georgia and Tennessee, including prominent Tea Party activists. His organization is so robust in Georgia, with volunteers to spare, that the campaign is deploying teams of Georgians to Iowa and South Carolina.
“We are the kind of people they need on election day,” said Jim Beck, the president of the Georgia Christian Coalition, who is volunteering as Cruz’s faith outreach coordinator — the first presidential campaign he’s ever been involved in. “Quite candidly, the most discriminated group in America is Christian Southerners, because everybody thinks we are these ignorant rednecks.”
Another key Georgia booster for Cruz is a former carpet mill owner turned obsessive radio talk show caller named Joe McCutchen. The 76-year-old spends eight hours a day campaigning for Cruz, often from his home library in the 1,600-person Appalachian mountain town of Ellijay.
“Talk radio is going to elect Ted Cruz,” said McCutchen, who regularly calls into a conservative radio show broadcast from Augusta, near the Georgia-South Carolina border.
McCutchen earned national acclaim as a Mitt Romney superfan in 2012, proclaiming his devotion over the airwaves. Now he answers his phone with an upbeat “Cruz for president.” He wears a rectangular Cruz badge everywhere he goes, including a recent Georgia Tech football game, striking up conversations with strangers about his presidential pick.
“I’m even more fired up about Ted than I was about Mitt,” McCutchen said.
Bob Davis, a GOP consultant and former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party who is not working for any presidential candidate, said much of Cruz’s support in the state comes from rural communities and the wealthy “collar counties” ringing Nashville — “conservative, God-fearing, hard-working Americans.”
Cruz, being from Texas, “touches on all those kinds of values,” he said. “Cruz’s folks are going to turn out and vote. That’s another reason why he’s dangerous.”
Cruz is trying to secure the endorsement of a pastor in every county in Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. The campaign holds screenings of a documentary about the erosion of religious liberty for Christians in America and urges pastors to discuss the issue with their congregations.
“The ideology and political mind that Ted Cruz represents is so easily embraced by those of us who are pastors,” said Lyndon Allen, pastor of Woodmont Bible Church in Nashville and chairman of “95 Pastors for Cruz.” “If you couple that with his strong constitutional background, which is a document with Judeo-Christian anchors, that combination is irresistible.’’
Cruz is competing against formidable challengers appealing to an overlapping demographic — white voters fed up with Washington and turning towards antiestablishment outsiders.
Trump has held megarallies across the South and still leads many polls there. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and author of more than half a dozen books published by a Christian publisher, has inspired a devoted following with his best-selling life story.
Even former Florida governor Jeb Bush, an establishment candidate trying to gain traction, is stumping at college football games across the region. And Rubio has been campaigning heavily this month in South Carolina, Alabama, and Texas.
“The Cruz people are positioning themselves for victories in the South. If they don’t get those, it’s very hard to see how Cruz could get the nomination,” said Merle Black, an Emory professor who studies politics in the South.
Fellow Republican Lamar Alexander, a center-right senator from Tennessee who has yet to endorse a primary candidate, discounts Cruz’s recent rise, saying that “95 percent’’ of Southern voters have yet to make up their minds. “They will be looking for a real president, not someone who appeals to an extreme point of view,” he said in an interview this week.
David Panton, an Atlanta-based private equity manager who donated $100,000 to a Cruz super PAC and who was Cruz’s roommate and debate partner at Princeton, said he believes Cruz will emerge as the nominee because of his “strategic focus — both in terms of the demographics he needs to court as well as his understanding of the delegate map.”
It’s a playbook he’s used before — while running for Senate in 2012, when he took on the Texas establishment by targeting the same demographics and building a grass-roots army of evangelicals, Tea Party supporters, and libertarians. He defeated the sitting lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, in the Republican primary, by 13 percentage points despite being outspent 3-to-1 — in a race characterized by the Washington Post as the biggest political upset of the year.
“This is not Ted’s first rodeo,” Panton said.