DES MOINES, Iowa -- Moderation isn't going to win more seats for the GOP in Congress in 2014, Ted Cruz told Iowa Republicans on Friday. Instead, the junior senator from Texas told them, the answer is firing up the conservative base.
"For everyone who talks about wanting to win elections in 2014, particularly in an off year, a non-presidential year -- nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing matters more than an energized and active vocal grassroots America," Cruz told the crowd of about 600 people at the state GOP's annual Reagan fundraising dinner. "That's how you get elected."
The speech marked the third time in three months that the Texas Republican has pitched -- and in some ways, preached -- his fiery brand of conservatism to activists in the state that gets first say in the presidential nominating contests.
In a nearly 45-minute speech, Cruz offered a broad defense of the defiant strategy that many on both sides of the aisle say led to a government shutdown and a near default on the U.S. debt. He argued that the tactics energized Republican grassroots, inflamed criticism of the health care law (even from liberal voices like comedian Jon Stewart), and forced Democrats to take controversial votes that could be used against them later in campaign ads.
And he said the only reason he didn't accomplish his stated goal -- stripping funding from the health care law -- was because his own colleagues in the Senate didn't support him.
"Senate Republicans chose not to unite and stand side by side with House Republicans," Cruz said. "Had we stood together, I'm convinced the outcome of this fight would have been very, very different."
And Cruz was quick to joke about his own treatment at the hands of Republican leaders in Washington. He told a story about his two young daughters discussing what they wanted to be when they grew up, with younger sister Catherine saying she wanted to work in the Senate with her father. Her older sister, Caroline, told her that "daddy'll be dead" before she'd be old enough to work alongside him.
"I wondered if Caroline had been talking with Republican leadership," Cruz cracked.
Cruz also spoke to reporters after his speech, and he didn't say whether his repeated visits to Iowa meant he intended to run for president. But he suggested that he was working to build a national profile that would extend beyond Texas, which he’s served as senator since January.
He's held over 75 events in his home state, he said, but added: "we've been to 13 states all over the country because I think the key to turning this country around is energizing and mobilizing the grassroots."
Cruz addressed a somewhat muted crowd of GOP activists who attended the annual fundraising dinner in what is usually a quiet political year. Previous speakers at the dinner include former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; her appearance, in 2010, drew nearly three times as many attendees.
This year, the Iowa state party he addressed is embroiled in a feud that in some ways mirrors the broader fight for the GOP's identity. Many in the state party's current leadership supported former Rep. Ron Paul's run for president, and a number of the speakers who preceded Cruz at the podium made pointed comments aimed at leaders who urge more moderate tactics.
"We are often told by the political establishment that we shouldn't take stances on issues because it could hurt in elections in two or three years, we're told that we should water down the message," said A.J. Spiker, the current party chairman. "Then we wonder why candidates with a watered-down message lose those elections."
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who won his first election in 1972, offered a subtle rebuttal in his remarks, noting the fundraiser was named for former President Ronald Reagan. "He taught us the 11th commandment -- speak no ill of other Republicans. We need to be united as a party, and we need to get our message across to the people of this great country," Branstad said.
Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace, a frequent critic of the state's establishment, jabbed back at Branstad almost immediately. He wrote on Twitter: "Maybe if Terry Branstad were better at keeping the 10 Commandments he wouldn't have to hide behind Reagan's 11th."