MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

The Evangelical Power Broker Behind Ted Cruz

Can a controversial historian and Tea Party favorite make the difference for Cruz?

01.29.16 5:01 AM ET

Moments before Glenn Beck endorsed Ted Cruz for president in Iowa this weekend, he huddled to pray with his longtime friend, David Barton, whose super PAC, Keep the Promise, is supporting Cruz for president and sponsored the rally where Beck and Cruz would appear together.

“As he speaks, Lord, let the words come off his mouth that you want said to these folks,” Barton prayed. When they finished, Beck said to Barton, “This is the moment. This is the moment that we prayed for.”

Barton oversees Keep the Promise PAC, one of several multimillion-dollar super PACs supporting Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid, has never run a campaign, never run a super PAC, and never run for office. But the self-taught historian and evangelical Tea Party favorite may be the perfect man in 2016 to court and care for deep-pocketed evangelical GOP donors in a year when Cruz and the super PACs supporting him will rely on evangelicals for every vote—and every dollar—they can get.

While Barton may be new to super PACs, he is not at all new to politics. The former Christian school principal and ordained minister was also the vice chairman of the Texas GOP for nearly 10 years. In 2004, he worked for the RNC to turn evangelicals in Texas out to for George W. Bush. In 2012, he was a member of the RNC’s Platform Committee that called for a constitutional ban on abortion and defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. And since then, he’s been courted and praised by Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, and nearly every other conservative presidential candidate looking to capture crucial evangelical voters.

“Having David Barton running the super PAC gives it a lot of validity for evangelicals and pastors,” said Mike Gonzalez, the South Carolina evangelical chair for the Cruz for President campaign.

“A lot of times, Super PACs are viewed as kind of the bulldog in the campaign. They get nasty, they get dirty.” But Gonzalez said having Barton at the helm gives the PAC instant integrity, with evangelicals in particular. “That’s what I would say is the main reason they went with Barton. He’s not going to be attacking a person’s family or attacking them personally. He’s going to make sure it’s on policy.”

Barton’s Keep the Promise PAC is one of four almost identically named super PACs supporting Cruz. The PACs can, and do, coordinate with each other, but not with Cruz or his campaign. Barton’s PAC has raised more than $1.8 million from a small group of large donors, including the Houston Texans’ CEO Bob McNair. Veteran GOP strategist Kellyanne Conway manages Keep the Promise I, funded by a single $11 million contribution from New York hedge funder Robert Mercer.

Similarly, KTP II is the home for a $10 million donation from Toby Neugebauer, while KTP III is funded by $15 million from the Wilks brothers, the retired fracking billionaires from Cisco, Texas, who are also devotees of the right-leaning Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day church.

Barton’s own politics are conservative and, as he describes them, “bible centered.” He is staunchly anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-second Amendment, and pro-free market. He has spoken extensively about his belief that Jesus was against capital gains taxes, the estate tax, and the minimum wage. He has called President Obama “the most biblically hostile president in U.S. history” and calls on Christians to vote for and elect “righteous” leaders.

Barton’s involvement in politics, in the past and now, is a logical extension of Wallbuilders, the Aledo, Texas, company he founded whose mission is to encourage government officials to develop policies that “reflect Biblical values.” Wallbuilders also calls on Christians to involve themselves government and politics and creates DVDs and books that feature some of the thousands of original documents from the country’s founding that Barton has acquired, which he points to as proof that the United States was founded explicitly as a Christian nation.

As much as Barton’s writings have drawn fans among the religious right, his work has received equally extensive criticism from scholars and historians that call his work deeply flawed and cherry-picked history.

“David Barton has repeatedly said that portions of the Constitution are taken verbatim from the Bible, which is ludicrous and easily disproved,” said Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow with People for the American Way, the progressive interest group that has devoted significant resources to following Barton and debunking his work. “He says that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence came out of preachers’ sermons, so that we should look at them as Christian documents, even though the Constitution explicitly is not that and was chosen to not be that.”

But not all of the criticism of Barton’s work comes from the left. His 2012 book, The Jefferson Lies, Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, was pulled from bookshelves by its Christian publisher over multiple inaccuracies, an episode dismissed as a smear campaign from “liberal bastards” by Barton supporters, including Glenn Beck, who offered to re-publish the book himself.

The controversy appears to have done nothing to diminish Barton in the eyes of his supporters. “You have to consider the source,” Mike Gonzalez said. “Who are you going to believe? The person who owns original documents or a professor who has none of those and is just basically going off of revised history? David Barton is a walking history book. He is a man of integrity.”

That kind of personal loyalty to a leader among evangelicals is invaluable for any campaign, but is of particular importance to Cruz, who has made it clear that he is not looking to expand his appeal beyond the base of the Republican Party to new voters, particularly if they’re evangelicals.

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To make sure that happens, Barton’s KTP PAC hosted a gathering of 300 high-profile pastors in Cisco, Texas, last month to introduce faith leaders to Cruz. Conway’s KTP I has hired 14 field staff in South Carolina, 10 in Iowa, and staffers in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and in several of the SEC primary states. She has also plowed cash into phone banking, door knocking, digital and social outreach in early states, and recently made a $1 million ad buy in the four early states.

“My philosophy is that our resources are ample but not unlimited,” she said.

While Conway’s and Barton’s Super PACs have been visibly active, KTP II and KTP III, the Naugebauer and Wilks’ Super PACs, have kept nearly every penny of their original $25 million hauls dormant, like two loaded guns just waiting to fire. This situation has caused heartburn for Cruz staffers and associates, who have no say—and no idea—about when, how, or even if the money will be spent.

Conway said that the four Super PACs are “affiliated so that we won’t duplicate efforts.” They coordinate strategy and messaging, but ultimately, the decision-making for each PAC lies within the PAC itself.

The path the super PACs settle on could make the difference for Cruz, whose momentum has stalled in the polls but is a clear second to Donald Trump in Iowa and South Carolina, and across the rest of the South, which will vote as a block in the “SEC primary” on March 1.

If anyone at the super PACs is worried, they’re not saying so. “We are seeing growing support nationwide for Sen. Cruz throughout the evangelical community and we are confident they will turn out to support him,” Barton told The Daily Beast.

For Barton, the man once dubbed “the most influential evangelical you’ve never heard of” by NPR, a successful Cruz campaign could catapult him and his candidate to the center of government, where Barton has said righteous leaders belong.