BARNSTEAD, New Hampshire—They hate Ted Cruz so much.
His fellow senators publicly denounce him and call him names. They yell at him behind closed doors and complain about him to their lobbyist friends. They hate him with a wild, deranging passion. The Beltway grandees, with their consulting contracts and expensive suits, would sooner die or move to Europe than live in the America he would govern.
And Cruz revels in their hatred.
“You know,” the Texas senator said, eyebrows tented plaintively, black hair neatly parted on the left, “when we launched this campaign, the New York Times promptly opined, ‘Cruz cannot win, because the Washington elites despise him.’” He paused for effect, exactly the same way he had paused for effect the previous night in Whitefield, exactly the same way he would pause for effect the next morning in Exeter. Then he delivered the punch line: “I kind of thought that was the whole point of the campaign!”
The White Buffalo Trading Post, a convenience store and pizza restaurant in this rural town on the eastern side of the state, was packed to the gills with bearded, plaid-shirted Granite Staters. It was standing-room-only in the back room where Cruz was speaking, where the dining tables had been removed and the smell of pizza drifted in from the adjoining kitchen. Dozens of reporters and cameramen jostled for position—Cruz has a media contingent befitting a frontrunner. The crowd filled the aisles of the store, children hoisted on shoulders, bodies crammed between the shelves of snacks and the register counter.
Aside from Donald Trump, no candidate appears better positioned than Cruz as Republican primary voters prepare to cast their first ballots. He is favored to win Iowa; he has surged to second in New Hampshire, frustrating the hope of mainstream Republicans that a more acceptable candidate could consolidate support in the traditionally moderate-friendly state. Through canny co-optation of the right-wing counterestablishment, and a methodical and strategic campaign, Cruz stands on the brink of a goal that the GOP’s grassroots activists have spent decades trying to achieve. These are not the elephant-brooch Republicans who populate party meetings. They are the seething fringe of Tea Party rallies and talk radio, of antigovernment email lists and small-town committees for individual rights. If Cruz succeeds in riding them to the nomination, it will mean more than one man's candidacy; it will mean the right wing has succeeded in completing its hostile takeover of the Republican Party.
The audience laughed and cheered Cruz’s joke, which he also laughed at, lips stretched thin over perfect teeth, his whole body shaking silently. “Listen,” he continued, “if you think things in Washington are doing great and we need to keep heading in the same basic direction—just kind of fiddle around the edges—then I ain’t your guy. On the other hand, if you think Washington is fundamentally broken, that there is a bipartisan coalition of career politicians in both parties that get in bed with lobbyists and special interests and grow and grow and grow government, and we need to take power out of Washington”—at this, he crouched and reached forward as if to physically snatch something from an unseen foe—“and back to We the People”—leaped up and hurled his clenched fist backward—“that is what this campaign is all about!”
This kind of routine, which Cruz delivers with choreographed precision at every campaign stop, makes the D.C. elites gnash their teeth. It seems so phony, so theatrical, so contrived. But here on the campaign trail, the people do not hate Ted Cruz at all. Here, they love him.
“Ted Cruz is the only committed conservative I’ll have a chance to vote for in my lifetime,” said Rick Zaino, a 50-year-old electrical-service worker. He’s never been involved in a campaign before, but now he spends two hours every night making phone calls and knocking on doors for Cruz. “Republicans and Democrats are both for the government, not the people,” he added. “All our freedoms are being usurped every day.”
Cruz was accompanied in New Hampshire by members of the local GOP insurgency: Bob Smith, an odd duck who managed to get himself elected to two terms in the U.S. Senate before being drummed out by his fellow Republicans in 2002; Jack Kimball, a Tea Partier who became chairman of the state Republican Party, drove it into penury, and was ousted by an establishment cabal in 2011; and William O’Brien, a former speaker of the state House who lost his post a year ago after Democrats joined with moderate Republicans to elect a more congenial GOPer instead. This is the fate that normally awaits renegades. Cruz is betting that times have changed.
In Barnstead, numerous voters told me they were initially attracted to Trump’s candidacy. Some were still considering voting for him, but most said they considered Trump a blowhard and a bully, where Cruz struck them as comparatively civil. “Ted Cruz, he’s more presidential than Trump,” said Darren Nielsen, a 52-year-old software engineer in plaid suspenders and a black wool cap. Mary Corliss, a “born-again Christian” with long blonde hair, added, “I have some concerns about Donald Trump maybe being a loose cannon.” Cruz struck her as “a man of integrity.”
For Cruz, it is all going almost exactly according to plan. The campaign is his vindication. What the dim bulbs in Washington can’t see is that he did it all on purpose, and now he is a hero to the many Americans who also hate the establishment. (Hilariously, a plurality of Republican primary voters say Cruz is the candidate who would best be able to work with Congress if elected.) Ted Cruz set out to win the establishment’s hatred. He turned it to his advantage. And now, the establishment may not be able to stop him.
The following morning in Exeter, Fran Wendelboe was hanging out near the entrance of the town hall, which looks like something out of a New England picture postcard, and where Cruz was scheduled to make an early campaign stop. The event had to be moved up two hours so Cruz could return to Washington for Senate votes, a surprise disruption he repeatedly implied was intentionally inflicted by the majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Cruz recently called McConnell a liar on the floor of the Senate. He and McConnell are not friends.
Wendelboe, a former seven-term state representative who is helping lead Cruz’s New Hampshire campaign, is a leader of the 603 Alliance, a coalition of two dozen New Hampshire grassroots conservative groups (“Tea Party organizations, pro-life organizations, school-choice organizations, Second Amendment organizations”). The alliance formed a year ago, in an effort to unify conservatives. “A lot of the other campaigns didn’t want to deal with us,” Wendelboe told me, “but the Cruz campaign embraced us.” Cruz spoke to the group several times. In October, at an event at a fairgrounds outside Concord that drew more than 700, the alliance voted overwhelmingly to back Cruz.
Conservatives love nothing more than forming clubs—organizations with Patriot and Freedom and Eagle in the name that get together and start email lists and obsess about politics local and national. More than any other candidate, Cruz understands this loosely knit network and has wooed it. His schedule is littered with appearances hosted by little groups like the 603 Alliance in every state.
The network dates back to the 1950s, when a ragtag group of McCarthyites, isolationists, and segregationists came together around the premise that neither political party was representing their views. Through mailed publications and local groups, they gradually began organizing a movement under the name For America. Unsuccessful at first, the right-wingers set their sights on 1964, parsing convention and delegate rules and looking for a champion.
As Rick Perlstein recounts in his history of the movement, Before the Storm, it was only after an intensive lobbying effort that a reluctant senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, agreed to run. He was championed by figures such as Phyllis Schlafly, whose pro-Goldwater tome, A Choice Not an Echo, made the case against the Republican “kingmakers” who sought to foist liberal candidates on the party base. Goldwater won the nomination—and then, of course, lost the general election to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide, taking just six states and 52 of 538 electoral votes.
In 1964, the movement laid the groundwork and then went looking for its quarterback. This time around, the quarterback is attempting to draft the movement.
Cruz’s camp, naturally, detests the 1964 comparison, because it implies that he will lose like Goldwater did. “Republicans could have run the Pope in 1964, after JFK was shot a year earlier, and who the heck is going to beat Lyndon Johnson?” said Chip Roy, a former Cruz chief of staff who now works for the attorney general of Texas but remains a close adviser. Times are different now, he argued: “We’re at a time right now where people are ready for leadership and change. That wasn’t the case in 1964, but it was in 1980.”
To a remarkable degree, Cruz’s 2016 playbook is a duplicate of his 2012 Senate primary campaign, when he rallied Texas conservatives to take on the heir apparent, David Dewhurst, a wealthy lieutenant governor supported by most elected Texas Republicans, including then-Governor Rick Perry. “He is really rooted in the grassroots politics of all the organizations that are built to mobilize people to change the status quo,” Roy said. “He did it in Texas, and now he’s doing it at the national level.”
And unlike many senators elected with Tea Party support, who sought to learn the ropes of the institution once they got to Washington, Cruz brought the attitudes of the grassroots with him. “His political DNA was set in concrete in that  race,” a GOP Senate aide who dislikes Cruz intensely told me. “And he was off to the races as soon as he got here.”
Less than two months after taking the oath of office, Cruz publicly accused the Obama administration’s nominee for defense secretary, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, of taking payments from hostile regimes, a baseless claim that prompted bipartisan accusations of McCarthyism. Amanda Carpenter was Cruz’s communications director at the time. A one-time speechwriter for the former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who left office to head the Heritage Foundation, she recalled initially hesitating to take a job with Cruz, because working for a back-bench freshman was likely to be boring. The Hagel episode was when she knew that would not be the case. Subsequent crusades followed, from the 2013 government shutdown to supporting groups challenging his Senate colleagues in primaries.
In Washington, Cruz turned his Senate office into a sort of war room for the conservative movement. “There is a huge conglomeration of conservative groups that help Republicans get elected, and then the elected leadership in Washington act like they don’t have any idea it exists,” Carpenter, who’s now an independent writer and commentator, told me. “It’s the arrogance of Republican leadership that they think they don’t have to get their hands dirty with the grassroots. Ted Cruz is of the grassroots—that’s why they don’t understand his power. He’s used his own network. He doesn’t use their network.”
At his campaign stops in New Hampshire, slickly produced campaign videos played as the crowd awaited Cruz. One features testimonials from Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity. Another features former supporters of Ron and Rand Paul who now support Cruz. Some of Cruz’s stump-speech lines didn’t get the applause here that they presumably do in Iowa, and a couple of his events, like an evening meet-and-greet in Rochester, drew a crowd that didn’t fill the room. Cruz’s camp is under no illusion that his kind of people are a majority of the New Hampshire vote—the idea is that there are just enough of them for him to place well.
In Rochester, I met a put-together woman in wire-rimmed glasses named Mona Perreault. She owns an RV dealership, and we talked about the joys of family vacations. Perreault was part of an effort in 2014 to get conservatives not to vote for the Republican nominees for Senate and governor, Scott Brown and Walt Havenstein, both of whom lost to their Democratic opponents. “We stopped them from winning to teach them a lesson,” she told me with satisfaction. “We’re the base that they hate.”
Driving around New Hampshire in pursuit of Cruz, I turned on Rush Limbaugh, who was contemplating the prospect of a breakup of the GOP. Limbaugh noted that he frequently gets asked about the prospect of a third-party effort, which he considers a terrible idea. “You go third party, it guarantees the Democrats win,” he said. “The objective has always been that conservatives need to assert control over the Republican Party. Well, if the Republican Party establishment decides to abandon the party, well, we move in and take it over.”
Limbaugh was attempting to remain neutral between Trump and Cruz, decrying attempts to pit the two against one another as an establishment plot, and insisting he respected his listeners’ intelligence too much to tell them whom to pick. But the fact is that Cruz and Trump are now, after months of détente, in a shooting war. Trump is airing a tough new television ad attacking Cruz on immigration, and criticizing him in withering personal terms on the stump. (“He's a nasty guy. Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him.”)
There is evidence Trump’s criticism is hurting Cruz. In addition to right-wing goddess Sarah Palin, Phyllis Schlafly has endorsed Trump, a neat symbol of the way Trump’s candidacy has thrown a wrench into Cruz’s carefully laid plans. On the other hand, some independent groups are trying to take down Trump, with National Review publishing a special issue attacking him and a political-action committee sending mailers in Iowa and putting out a devastating web video. If the right continues to mobilize against Trump, it could leave Cruz in the catbird seat—and who, at that point, will have the power to take him out?
For Cruz’s part, he has endeavored to criticize Trump in substantive rather than personal terms. On immigration, for example, he casts himself as having fought the bill that passed the Senate in 2013, while “Mr. Trump was nowhere to be found. He did not engage. He said nothing.” (Cruz, however, has changed his tune on the issue of legal immigration levels: Having proposed to increase them then, he now calls for restricting legal immigration.) The Cruz camp hopes—as all the other candidates have been hoping, in vain, for six months now—that the Trump bubble will finally pop.
From the beginning, Cruz has had a clear theory of the campaign. There are, he told Politico in October, four types of Republicans: the moderate establishment, Tea Partiers, evangelicals, and libertarians. He planned to compete for the last three categories. To a remarkable degree, he seems to have succeeded: His appeals to evangelical voters have edged out social-conservative candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, while his libertarian feints have succeeded in annexing much of Rand Paul’s presumed voting bloc. As Cruz said three months ago, “I think three of the lanes are collapsing into one, which is the evangelical lane, the conservative tea party lane, and the libertarian lane are all collapsing into the conservative lane, and we’re seeing those lanes unify behind our campaign.”
If Cruz is right, he will have cleverly anticipated and exploited the key way in which 2016’s Republican primary differs from 2012. Last time around, conservatives tried and failed to stop the nomination from going to Mitt Romney, their votes splintered by a field of second-tier challengers. Cruz’s operating theory from the beginning has been that 2016 would be a mirror image, with establishment-friendly candidates fractured and conservatives united around a single choice—him. But like everyone else, he did not bargain on Trump.
In Exeter, Cruz took a final audience question. “I love what you stand for—you’ve got my vote,” the man said. “But I’m already a conservative. How do you reach out to low-information voters?” This is the worry of mainstream Republicans everywhere: Even if Cruz manages to finagle his way to the nomination, his hard-right views simply don’t have majority support in the electorate, and he will be doomed to a defeat of Goldwater proportions as a result.
But Cruz, who gets this question frequently, brushed it off with confidence. “I can’t wait to stand on that debate stage next to Hillary Clinton,” he said. The GOP’s failure in recent presidential elections, he said, has shown that the usual strategy of nominating an establishment favorite just doesn’t work.
“How do we win? We don’t do what the Washington consultants tell us every time,” he said. “What’s abundantly clear is that if we nominate another candidate in the mold of a Bob Dole, or a John McCain, or a Mitt Romney—all of whom are good, honorable, decent men who love their country—but what they did didn’t work. We’ve got to do something different. I think 2016 is like 1980.”
Cruz added a second point—that Republicans should be more fun. “Look, would it kill Republicans to crack a joke? Actually, some of them, I think it might. Have a little fun, for Pete’s sake!” He got the crowd laughing with a joke about how Reaganomics was starting a business in your parents’ garage, whereas Obamanomics is moving into your parents’ garage.
The audience ate it up, and Cruz’s shoulders shook with his silent laughter. If his carefully laid plan succeeds, he will be laughing all the way to the Republican nomination. Then the question will be whether the rest of America can love the man Washington hates.