Though the conventional wisdom is that Cruz is going after the same pool of voters as Trump, I find no former Trump supporters among his ardent base of fans. Many object to what they see as Trump’s grandstanding and narcissism; Cruz strikes them as more authentic and modest, a notion that would surely make Mitch McConnell spit out his bourbon. Instead, I find a lot of very well-informed conservatives who know what they think and have little use for the Republican Party per se.
“Trump is saying things everyone wants to say, but they can’t, because they owe favors,” says A.J. Lott, a 34-year-old with blue eyes and a crimson-hued bob. “But his mouth is going to get him in trouble. Compare that to Cruz—Donald Trump doesn’t have the substance to handle Congress.”
Lott, who is impressed with Cruz but leaning toward voting for Rubio, doesn’t consider herself a loyal Republican. “Sticking to a party, you lose sight of ideals. That’s foolish,” she says. “I tend to have more conservative values, but I vote for candidates, not for a party.” Lott’s friend Brian Wideman, a truck driver visiting from Michigan, adds, “Ted Cruz taking on his own party shows a lot of character and strength. You need a president who has that.”
Trump was the only candidate to send a Christmas card to Carolyn Watkins, a 61-year-old dietitian and devoted Tea Party activist who decided to support Cruz after her preferred candidate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, dropped out. (The card said “Merry Christmas—let’s make America great again,” she tells me.) Nonetheless, she considers Trump overly “abrasive.” Watkins has had it with Nikki Haley, who she believes has turned her back on the conservative movement with moves like her state-of-the-union response and a proposal to raise gas taxes.
If you are a candidate, Watkins is a good person to have on your side. She pours her whole soul into a campaign. “I have given up my time with my church and my family to canvass for him, and I don’t do that for just anybody,” she tells me, and as she says it her voice wavers and her eyes brim. “What I find when I canvass is that Trump is turning people off as he shows his true colors, and people are coming to Cruz,” she says.
Watkins has had enough of the official GOP. “Republicans told us, ‘Give us the House, we’ll repeal Obamacare and stop amnesty,’” she says. “Then they said, ‘Well, we need the Senate too.’ But they got the Senate and they still didn’t do any of it. Now they say, ‘Give us the presidency.’ But if we give the presidency to someone like Jeb Bush, an establishment Republican in bed with establishment Democrats, they’ll just keep scratching each other’s backs.”
On my way out of the building, I meet a 24-year-old financial analyst named Vladimir Plotkin, sitting on a bench with his grandparents, immigrants from Belarus. (In heavily accented English, his grandmother tells me, “He so smart, if born in America he can be president!”) Plotkin likes Rand Paul, but no longer thinks he can win; Cruz, like Paul, he notes approvingly, was once called a “wacko bird” by John McCain. “It’s good that they shake up the establishment. We need people who fight and stand up for principles,” Plotkin says. “Ted Cruz calls out Republicans as well as Democrats—that’s what we need.”
And so the Republican Party careens toward its potential Armageddon. Cruz is the natural product of a conservative movement that has long seen the Republican Party as an enemy to be conquered, and of a GOP establishment that has held onto power despite being resented by its most loyal voters. As Ted Cruz tells it, the Republican Party has done this to itself. It’s his job, and that of the grass roots, to destroy the party in order to save it.