ALTOONA, Iowa—In a rare hard-lined stance on the 2016 race, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said Tuesday he believes a Senator Ted Cruz caucus victory would be "damaging" to the state.
When asked by NBC affiliate WHO if Governor Branstad hoped that Cruz would be defeated in Iowa in the February 1st Republican caucus, he said, "Yes."
"I think it would be very damaging to the state," he continued.
Branstad, the longest serving governor in American history, has been dogged by questions from reporters for months on the state of the 2016 race, but he has rarely engaged directly. The state's chief executive has said repeatedly that he will not endorse any candidate before the caucuses.
Branstad appears to have changed his position as Cruz leads the real estate mogul Donald Trump by just three points in the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll.
"I believe it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him," Branstad concluded at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit.
Cruz indirectly addressed Branstad's statement on Twitter.
But Rep. Steve King, Cruz's national co-chair and key surrogate in Iowa among conservatives and evangelicals, reacted to Branstad's comments, saying they constitute a "de facto endorsement" of Donald Trump.
Also speaking at the Renewable Fuels Summit, Trump said Branstad's denunciation of Cruz was "amazing," adding that Cruz has been "mixed" on the topic of the renewable fuel standards, a critical issue for Iowa farmers who support the government mandate.
"I agree, I agree. And you know, (Cruz has) been mixed on the subject. He goes wherever the votes are, so he all of a sudden went over here and then all of a sudden he got slapped, so it's very interesting to see," Trump said.
Branstad's opine is a change in tactic. Just a month ago at a party in his honor filled with hundreds of Republicans from all across the state of Iowa, he was asked on stage his opinions of the 2016 candidates and the caucuses and the governor instead offered advice to candidates.
"Ask for their votes…go everywhere…work hard," commented Branstad ahead of the election year.
Though Cruz has been heeding the governor's advice, having just concluded a 6-day, 28-stop bus tour across Iowa, this was not enough to sway the Iowa governor.
Branstad's son, Eric Branstad leads a bipartisan advocacy group for renewable fuels, a subject that is important to many farmers and pro-ethanol businesses in Iowa. This group, America's Renewable Future, followed Cruz during his recent multi-day bus tour highlighting the candidate's weaknesses on this issue and his financial backing from Texas "big-oil" interests.
This group has run six-figure radio ads blasting Cruz.
Vaughn Hillyard contributed to this report.