No Republican candidate since George W. Bush has swept the south in a GOP primary season, but another Texan is now hoping to complete the same feat in 2016.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, armed with his own flavor of southern charm and an unabashed message of conservatism, is barnstorming the region to try to lock up support before the torrent of primary contests in Southern states begins in March.
“The role of Alabama is going to be to help ensure that the next Republican nominee is the next president and the next president is a real conservative,” Cruz told a crowd of 1,300 in the Mobile suburb of Daphne over the weekend.
Mike Huckabee and John McCain divided the region’s backing in 2008. In 2012, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum sliced up the South’s share of delegates. But Cruz supporters across the south suggest his candidacy is different from those Republicans before him.
“Ted Cruz is Newt with the brilliance and the grasp of the issues, but with no baggage,” said Teri Sasseville, who serves on Cruz’s Georgia leadership team. In 2012, she backed Gingrich, who won South Carolina and her home state of Georgia.
Mona Lyons of Mobile, came to the Cruz's Daphne event with her two young daughters. Lyons voted for Santorum four years ago but suggested the energy around the former Pennsylvania senator’s bid paled in comparison to what she sees for Cruz.
“I appreciate that Santorum was a conservative, but isn’t Cruz’s father a Baptist minister?” Lyons rhetorically asked after the boisterous rally. “I can tell. It sounded like we were in the choir there, and he was preaching for us.”
Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia since 1968, said that the distinctiveness of Cruz as a candidate could separate him from the rest of the pack in the region.
“He’s a southerner, and he’s courting the evangelical vote,” Bullock said. “He’s well spoken. He’s direct. But he also brings a southern accent and wears cowboy boots.”
Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and the couple’s two young daughters joined for the weekend trip, seeming notably at ease despite the feverish pace. While their father shook hands, the two daughters stood on stage and waved to the crowd.
“They know he’s one of them,” Heidi Cruz told NBC News. “Texas and Alabama share a lot of the same values. This is a Second Amendment state. And they know he is a true, consistent conservative.”
Lou Dixon, 73, a Romney backer in 2012, highlighted Cruz’s prowess as a candidate.
“Rick Santorum just wasn’t strong enough and, of course, Romney wasn’t either,” Dixon said in Daphne. “Cruz is just stronger as an individual.”
And the synergy behind Cruz’s bid – still a month and a half out from the Iowa caucus – is what gives the campaign confidence in being able to finish well in the South and beyond.
“What typically happens in a Republican primary is a conservative has to win a state, and then it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, a conservative can win – we can be with them,’” said Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, over the weekend. “But this has been happening for months. They’re not waiting to see if we can win.”
Still in Cruz’s way is Donald Trump, who continues to poll well across the south. Bullock suggests Cruz will remind voters about the key element of his own appeal.
“At some point, he may have to point out the Donald is from New York, which should make some southerners suspicious,” Bullock said.
But for now, Cruz's pitch is resonating with supporters who say his conservative beliefs are aligned with their own.
John Salter, a 90-year-old man from Jackson, Mississippi, left before sunrise to drive 268 miles to see Cruz speak near Birmingham on Sunday.
“He believes in the Constitution, and I do too. It’s based on Christian principles,” Salter said. “He’s honest. He’s intellectual. And he knows what to do.”