COLUMBIA, SC — Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is reaching out Monday to the same audience of S.C. pastors that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited twice before his surprise victory in the state’s 2012 presidential primary.
Cruz, an expected White House hopeful who was the lightning rod during last month’s 16-day partial federal government shutdown, will speak at a Columbia hotel. It is one of many events that evangelical political operative David Lane has organized in key battleground states since 2005.
Lane’s American Renewal Project is financed by the American Family Association, the Mississippi-based Christian organization that advocates on social issues. Lane’s goal is to get more evangelicals to the polls via the “pastors’ policy briefings” that he has held over the years, including a half-dozen in South Carolina.
“Somebody’s values are going to reign supreme,” said Lane, an Oklahoma native now living in California who usually shies away from media attention. “I believe in limited government. The best thing for me is for government to leave me alone. … My goal to get this constituency to act on behalf of our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Lane does not give Gingrich’s visits with S.C. pastors all the credit for his 2012 S.C. primary win over eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who had the backing of Gov. Nikki Haley.
But the meetings helped, Lane said. “We set the table.”
Cruz will share testimony about his faith – not politics – before 400 pastors and their spouses, who will have their rooms and meals paid for by the American Renewal Project. Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston, a former congressman Haley appointed to the Senate late last year, also is speaking to the pastors Monday.
“Everyone knows what they’re running for,” Lane said. “We want to know where you are coming from. What we’re looking for is what’s behind the curtain.”
Still, political talk could emerge when pastors ask the speakers questions – providing Cruz with opportunities to show his conservative credentials in an early primary state. He also was the keynote speaker at the S.C. GOP’s Silver Elephant dinner this spring.
Lane said he also has invited other potential Republican White House hopefuls to Columbia – U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
Paul has spoken at American Renewal Project gatherings, including one in South Carolina in 2011 and another in Iowa this year. Jindal spoke at a Baton Rouge event in September.
“We want candidates at the events who have something to say to us,” Lane said.
Romney declined invitations to previous Renewal events. After shifting his opinions on some social issues, “he wasn’t going to move this constituency,” Lane said.
Lane, a 58-year-old University of Mississippi graduate, thinks the nation’s religious base needs to exert more influence after President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election.
Fewer than half of the estimated 65 million to 80 million evangelical Christians vote, limiting their impact in elections, Lane said. The meetings with pastors are part of an attempt to build grassroots support in 2014, ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
“If (church members) don’t get guidance from faith leaders, they get confused,” said former S.C. Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly, who traveled to Israel with Lane and Paul in January. “It’s about mobilizing pastors not just to register people to vote but to engage and have people vote on their values and not who has the most glitzy commercial. It’s back to basics and fundamentals.”
Connelly said Lane has built relationships within the S.C. religious community over the years. A pair of statewide Baptist organization leaders also made the Israel trip.
“He’s shown people that he’s serious and committed,” Connelly said.
Lane said he expects to return to South Carolina next year for another pastors’ briefing.