LE MARS, Iowa -- Sen. Ted Cruz used a series of long-scheduled appearances here this weekend to cast himself as the natural leader of a burgeoning conservative movement that nearly derailed the new health-care law.
"Two weeks ago it was impossible, this week President Obama and the Democrats are saying 'Holy cow, this thing really isn't working,'" Cruz, a Texas Republican, told a supportive crowd here a few hours after bagging two pheasants in a hunt with Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican. ("There were about a dozen Dick Cheney jokes," Cruz said.)
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No politician spends a weekend in Iowa in the chilly fall of an odd-numbered year unintentionally -- and fewer political visitors bring along their spouse. But with his wife, Heidi, watching just beyond the television cameras, Cruz told reporters at a state Republican Party fundraiser Friday night in Des Moines, Iowa that he's focused on staying and fighting in the Senate and increasing participation in the conservative movement.
"I'm convinced we're facing a new paradigm in politics; it is the paradigm of the rise of the grass roots. It has official Washington absolutely terrified," he said in his speech to party loyalists.
Republicans failed to strip apart the health-care law, but "I think we accomplished a great deal," Cruz told the Des Moines crowd. The weeks-long spending impasse "elevated the national debate of what a disaster, what a train wreck, how much Obamacare is hurting millions of Americans in this country."
He warned that the decision by Senate Democrats to repeatedly vote together against GOP-backed budget proposals will spell trouble for vulnerable House and Senate Democrats during next year's midterm elections.
"I promise you, come October and November of 2014, we're going to see TV commercials all over this country of Democrats who voted to give themselves a special exemption to Obamacare that their constituents don't get and there are going to be some Democratic members of Congress and of the Senate who are suddenly going to be experiencing the joys of the private health-care system," Cruz said.
But the senator reminded the crowd that during midterm election cycles "nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing matters more than an energized and active and vocal grass-roots America."
That's an especially relevant message to Iowa Republicans, who are sharply divided among an upstart Tea Party, a libertarian-inspired group of activists running the state party and mainstream Republicans more closely aligned with party stalwarts Gov. Terry Branstad and Rep. Tom Latham.
David Fischer, co-chairman of the state party, began the fundraiser Friday night by saying: "There are some of the old guard in the Grand Old Party that frankly don't approve of the kind of principled leadership being shown by the new conservative leaders" such as Cruz and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. "Some Republicans have even gone so far as to call them names," he said. "Well I have a name for these principled new leaders, too. I call them the future."
In an interview, Branstad called Cruz "a new face and one of the up-and-comers in Washington." But when asked about 2016, Branstad said he's looking to other GOP governors to step up. "We have many Republican governors that are doing many great things in terms of attracting businesses and jobs and reducing taxes and reforming education. I think governors are providing the leadership we don't see in Washington, D.C."
Party activists who attended the dinner said they generally appreciated Cruz's efforts to generate GOP opposition to the health-care law.
Jeff Shipley, 25, of Fairfield, Iowa, is one of many younger GOP activists here who backed former congressman Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, for president in 2008 and 2012. He said Cruz's decision to mount a filibuster in opposition to the health-care law had been the subject of spirited discussions at a recent party meeting.
"If I were going to talk for 21 hours, I'd probably also talk about other issues, like President Obama's failure of leadership. Like our situation in Syria, and the fact that we're spying on each other," Shipley said.
But Nancy Tucker, a corn and soy bean farmer in Colorado, said she spent several hours watching Cruz's filibuster and appreciated how he mixed serious comments with a reading of the Dr. Seuss classic "Green Eggs and Ham."
"And we were just tickled to wake up in the morning and see that he was still doing it," Tucker said. "All these people say they're going to defund Obamacare and they're not trying. And he is."