Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour faux-filibuster and 16-day federal government shutdown may have been for naught, but the Texan likely will get a hero’s welcome at Friday night’s Republican Party of Iowa dinner.
The warmth of the welcome may speak to a divide in the Iowa GOP between traditional, “Main Street” Republicans and tea party conservatives.
“Grassroots folks generally see Cruz as a hero. Elite or ‘establishment’ Republicans tend to see him as a goat,” says University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle. “I suspect that the welcome he gets at the dinner will be more on the hero side, as it will be populated more by grassroots people.”
Cruz is coming at a time when the GOP – at the state and national level – appears to be lacking a unifying leader, says Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt.
“Since nature abhors a vacuum, Ted Cruz has stepped up,” he adds.
Right now, Cruz is “the shining light leading the GOP through a dark moment of no other leadership,” Schmidt says.
More than 600 people are expected for Friday’s 6 p.m. Iowa GOP Reagan Dinner at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines. The fact tickets didn’t sell out until this week may speak more to the rift within the state party than Cruz’s popularity, according to Hagle.
It’s hard to tell who is more excited by Cruz’s visit, Republicans or the Iowa Democratic Party, who Coe College political scientist Bruce Nesmith notes “are already making hay over this.”
Democrats have been filling inboxes with messages linking Cruz to the GOP candidates for an open U.S. Senate seat as well as Gov. Terry Branstad, who is expected to seek a sixth term in 2014. Democrats have called on Branstad to boycott Cruz, which Schmidt says is not going to happen.
“He won’t hug Cruz because he is the smartest politician in the United States,” Schmidt says, “but Branstad needs to fend off attacks from the tea party and the insurgents, and by being polite he can accomplish that.”
The call for the boycott, based on Democrats’ online petition, is just politics, adds Hagle. Democrats are trying to make something of it “just because Branstad is running for re-election and they detest Cruz.”
Cruz’s visit – at the invitation of state GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker – probably won’t heal the intra-party rift, Nesmith says.
“Cruz, like Michele Bachmann or Joe McCarthy, is a polarizing figure even within the Republican Party,” Nesmith says, adding that his visit will embarrass some Iowa Republicans.
He also questions Cruz’s appeal as a 2016 GOP presidential nominee.
“He’s a movement leader,” Nesmith says. “With the arguable exception of Barry Goldwater — and Cruz is no Barry Goldwater — (movement leaders) don’t get nominations.”
But for Cruz, there is no downside, Nesmith says. Attention is its own reward. “He’s going to make a lot of money and/or get very famous from his celebrity political turn, and if there’s some presidential buzz, that can only help.”
There is that buzz. A state party official says there is no more room for media to cover the speech. However, it will be carried live at 7 p.m. on “Road to the White House ’16” on C-SPAN, C-SPAN Radio and C-SPAN.org.
Cruz is just the latest conservative Republicans being mentioned as possible 2016 presidential nominees to visit Iowa, host of the first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker, both of Wisconsin, are among the others.
Cruz won’t be the last. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is coming Nov. 7, followed by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Sarah Palin and Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schafly at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Friends of the Family fundraiser Nov. 9, and 2008 Iowa precinct caucus winner Mike Huckabee at Informed Choices, a pro-life group, Nov. 14.