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Eyeing '16, Ted Cruz Aims to Seize DeMint Mantle

Eyeing '16, Ted Cruz Aims to Seize DeMint Mantle

By Scott Conroy - May 2, 2013

With just four months under his belt in Washington, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has made clear he isn’t easing into his new job.

What’s more, he increasingly appears to have his eye on the next rung up the ladder.

Just about everyone in the nation’s capital already has a fully formed opinion of the first-term Republican, who is viewed as either a breath of fresh air for challenging the status quo or a grandstanding iconoclast who favors bombast over legislative achievement.

For his part, Cruz seems relatively unconcerned about making friends among his Senate colleagues or deferring to the pleasantries of the institution.

For those reasons, it should come as no surprise that his first public dip into the 2016 presidential waters will come at an event honoring former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint -- a Cruz mentor who left the upper chamber last year after forging a reputation as a hero to the Tea Party and a frequent thorn in the GOP establishment’s side.

Cruz will travel to DeMint’s home state on Friday to deliver the keynote address at the Silver Elephant Dinner in Columbia, an annual party fundraiser and gathering of key Republican activists who will set the early tone for the next presidential contest in the first-in-the-South primary state.

The invitation to this year’s event bills it as “a tribute” to DeMint, who played an instrumental role in Cruz’s ascent by backing him in July 2011, when the little-known former Texas solicitor general was a long shot for the Senate.

Former South Carolina GOP Chair Karen Floyd said she first heard about Cruz from DeMint, who talked him up in private conversations two years ago with her and other Republicans across the state. “Sen. DeMint purposely sought likeminded conservative candidates and put his infrastructure and funding behind them,” Floyd said. “Sen. Cruz was one of those individuals, and it’s of no surprise that he would be the keynote in light of this recognition and celebrating of Sen. DeMint’s tenure in the U.S. Senate.”

As Cruz’s candidacy became better known among grassroots conservatives, DeMint’s super PAC, Senate Conservatives Fund, began airing ads on the Texan’s behalf last July. And after Cruz won in November, DeMint continued to align himself squarely with the rising star, penning a February op-ed in Politico that shot back at Cruz’s detractors in the media and on Capitol Hill.

In his new role as president of The Heritage Foundation, DeMint will be on hand Friday to accept the attendees’ adulation, but it is Cruz who is set to earn the lion’s share of attention that night. Before the main dinner reception, a smaller group of donors and activists will have the chance to meet him at a private event.

According to Katon Dawson, who preceded Floyd as head of the South Carolina GOP and who spent this past week in Las Vegas raising money for a pro-Lindsey Graham super PAC, Cruz’s main task in that setting will be to get a sense of whether his grassroots support can translate into raising enough money to become a serious presidential contender.

“He’s certainly one of the Jim DeMint recipients of political goodwill, and Jim’s got a 100 percent favorable rating with the people who come to these conventions,” Dawson said. “It’s about seeing if you can be financially viable, not just emotionally viable.”

With his high level of support among conservatives and a potentially lucrative contributor base in his native Texas, Cruz could prove to be a prolific presidential-level fundraiser. He will be the featured guest at a New York Republican Party fundraising dinner later this month, which will provide him with a chance to meet many top-tier national donors and demonstrate the seriousness with which he is approaching the challenge.

But some prominent South Carolina Republican financiers remain somewhat skeptical of Cruz’s ability to broaden his support and compete at the highest level of politics so soon in his career.

Ed McMullen, a Columbia-based public affairs executive and member of the Finance Advisory Committee for Gov. Nikki Haley’s likely 2014 re-election campaign, has met Cruz previously in Washington and plans to attend Friday’s event. But he believes the 2010 campaign marked the apex of the Tea Party in South Carolina and that Cruz would be wise to expand his message to an increasingly diverse primary electorate in the Palmetto State.

“He’s clearly carved out his niche as a conservative guy, and I think he’ll be seen very well overall in South Carolina,” McMullen said of the up-and-comer. “His inexperience, I think, is not going to play well. A lot of people, after Romney, in this state are looking for someone with serious gravitas, who’s able to win an election.”

Adding to Cruz’s challenge, not every DeMint acolyte is yet convinced that the Texan is a natural heir to the former South Carolina senator, who was urged to run for president in 2012 by many supporters but decided ultimately to pass.

“DeMint had never been a bomb-thrower -- he was much more careful with his rhetoric,” one former longtime DeMint aide told RCP. “Cruz will say whatever he needs to push the envelope as far as he can. Ted Cruz talks like he’s a walking direct-mail piece.”

According to several South Carolina politicos, Cruz’s tight-knit inner circle has not yet reached out to members of the state’s GOP consultant class, many of whom have in the past been highly sought free agents, able to assist would-be candidates navigate the state’s quirky terrain ahead of each presidential cycle.

While there remains plenty of time for Cruz to make those connections, implicit in his South Carolina visit is the budding behind-the-scenes competition between him and two other ambitious Tea Party-backed first-term Republican senators who are also eyeing 2016 White House runs.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio keynoted last year’s Silver Elephant Dinner, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is slated to bolster his increasingly robust early-state speaking circuit with a trip to South Carolina next month.

State Sen. Kevin Bryant, who endorsed Ron Paul ahead of last year’s presidential primary and is a leading figure in the state’s hard-right political circles, said he does not yet have a favorite between Rand Paul and Cruz, though he spoke glowingly of the latter.

“If I could vote in his state, I’d vote twice,” Bryant said. “We have a pretty significant R.I.N.O. problem in South Carolina -- folks that are elected go to constituents and talk about how conservative they are, and then when it’s time to vote, they hold hands with Democrats and vote for more government and tax increases. Maybe Sen. Paul and Sen. Cruz will rub off when they’re both down here. I hope so.”

Cruz recently took an aggressive approach in opposing gun control legislation in the Senate and has signaled his opposition to the so-called “Gang of Eight” proposal for immigration form, which would pit him directly against Rubio on what figures to be a key issue in 2016.

The donors and activists on hand Friday in Columbia will be watching and listening intently as they aim to get a better sense of the 42-year-old Ivy League-educated senator and whether he is prepared to stand toe to toe against Rubio and Paul.

“My desire is to talk with him about some of the pressing legislation that I’m concerned about,” said RNC member Glenn McCall, a prominent South Carolina GOP activist who plans to attend. “We’re happy that he’ll be coming and look forward to hearing what he has to say.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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