CISCO, Tex. -- Sen. Ted Cruz huddled with conservative faith leaders here Monday and Tuesday as he coalesces the support of evangelical leaders behind his presidential bid.
Cruz met with about 300 prominent faith leaders gathered at the sprawling ranch of Farris Wilks, who, along with his brother Dan, donated $15 million to a super PAC supporting Cruz. The event, sponsored by the PAC, was designed to introduce visitors to the faith story of the Cruz family. No cameras or recording devices were allowed at the remote ranch, where visitors enter through a massive stone archway with black gates, to protect the privacy of attendees and their conversation.
The meeting comes as Cruz is gaining momentum both nationally and in the first in the nation voting state of Iowa -- he now sees the contest for the Republican nomination as a two-man contest between himself and businessman Donald Trump. Cruz has spent the entirety of his campaign assiduously courting evangelical Christians.
The Monday gathering included conversations, meals, extended prayer sessions, remarks from prominent clerics and from Cruz's wife, Heidi, and then a question-and-answer session with Cruz.
The crowd was so large that when Cruz spoke the Wilkses had to open the pool patio doors to accommodate about 100 guests who stood in 28 degree weather to listen to the senator.
Cruz allies said the two-day gathering, capping off with a rally where Cruz delivered his standard stump speech, followed by a performance from the Christian rock band The Newsboys, was an overwhelming success. By the end of the six-hour meeting Monday, dozens of the visitors lined up outside a closed room to tape video endorsements of the Cruz presidential bid. Some attended Super PAC and campaign fundraisers held Tuesday in Cisco that were timed to coincide with the fly-in.
The gathering could have been even larger. Mike Gonzalez, who leads the South Carolina Pastors Alliance, was disappointed that some of his fellow clergymen were not able to make it because bad weather caused flight cancellations.
However, when he arrived at the ranch he was stunned to see a crowd of about 300, "including many of the most prominent spiritual influencers in the country."
Those in attendance at the Monday sessions included prominent televangelists, such as John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, and James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family organization. Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and a longtime leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, was there, according to interviews with attendees, most of whom were not authorized to discuss the off-the-record session. They said that there were a number of Hispanic and African American clerics in the audience, including Gonzalez and Voddie Baucham, a well-known pastor in Texas.
"It was a very diverse group of national leaders who have significant standing," said David Barton, a Texas Republican author and activist who is leading one of the Super PACs that sponsored the gathering. "We brought them with no expectations and we were highly pleased with the number who decided Ted is the right man to be of the president of the U.S."
Barton said the purpose of the gathering was "to give people an opportunity to become acquainted with Ted's faith and see if they were comfortable with it."
The question and answer session with Cruz was led by James Robison, a televangelist and founder of the Life Outreach International organization. It produced few surprises for those who had listened to Cruz previously. He said all of the other GOP candidates were his friends and underlined the need for a change in leadership. He took questions about foreign policy, the U.S.-Israeli relationship, ISIS and the economy. There were few questions on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, in part because Cruz's opposition is well known.
But Gonzalez said the audience members he spoke to were impressed by Cruz's discussion of his faith, his command of the constitution,and, overall, by his determination to change the direction of the country. "These are people who understand the condition of the nation and know that it must change and that if we don't go in a different direction the nation will be destroyed."
About 300 people attended the $500-a-head fundraiser for the campaign in Cisco, where attendees dined on brisket. Barton said a number of people showed up unannounced. Before that about 60 attended the separate Super PAC fundraiser, which included no minimum admission price.
Both the Cruzes and Ted's pastor father, Rafael, have crisscrossed the country in an attempt to lock down the support of faith leaders on the national and grass-roots level. Earlier this month, in a secret meeting, Cruz won the support of a key evangelical coalition that will roll out endorsements between now and March 1. Cruz is attempting to lock down support in states that vote that day, most of which are in the South and have significant evangelical Christian populations, in order to emerge with the most delegates of any candidate.
The Texas Republican came to this small town in Texas's Big Country because of the Wilks brothers, who made billions of dollars from fracking. Farris Wilks said he spent the first six years of his life living in a goat shed here. The family's influence is everywhere in this town about 140 miles west of Dallas where numerous antiques stores line Main Street and Conrad Hilton built his first hotel, which is now abandoned, blue and white flowered wallpaper visible from a broken window. Residents said that people are starting to buy abandoned buildings and things are picking up -- something many attribute to jobs created by the Wilkses. The family built the center where Cruz held his rally, which is named after their mother, a new baseball complex, funded a crisis pregnancy center here and throw an annual concert where Christian bands perform.
They are also the largest individual landowners in the state of Montana. The Wilks brothers are extremely religious and active in churches -- Dan in a church attached to the community center and Farris as a pastor at Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day in nearby Rising Star, Tex., where congregants worship on Saturdays and signs in Hebrew hang above a doorway.
The Wilkses are known to be staunchly anti-abortion and against same-sex marriage. On his website, Farris Wilks said that "his own concern for our nation and the direction that it is headed has awakened in him a desire to support and promote causes he believes in."
Cruz told reporters that the Wilkses are "tremendous business leaders." The family, Cruz said, is "focused on pulling this country back from the brink," and are using their resources to do so.
"They’ve been willing to devote their resources to fighting for principles of religious liberty, fighting to defend life, fighting to defend marriage, fighting to defend the constitutional liberties on which this country was founded," Cruz said.
"I am grateful that they have been very, very supportive both in terms of helping raise money for our campaign directly and also their work on the super PAC, focused on helping us win," he said.
In an interview with KXTS, Farris Wilks said he wants to be able to influence national politics.
“I fear that our nation is going in the direction of socialism and so I think that maybe we’ve forgotten what has brought us to the place we are as a nation,” he said.
“The citizens of this nation have the opportunity through the free enterprise system and I think that’s something we need to hold very near and dear.”
Their effect on politics is also seen here in town; a billboard near the community center reads, "Righteousness Exalts a Nation, Vote Biblical Values."
At the rally, hundreds of people cheered as Cruz talked about wanting to defund Planned Parenthood, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and repeal Obamacare. The slickly produced rally featured scaffolding with blue concert lighting and cameras on a jib.
Bryan Edens, 24, lives in Cisco and supports Cruz. He said the Wilkses' choice of a candidate had an effect on his decision.
"I value their opinion on that," he said. "They're successful .. I take their opinions seriously."