DES MOINES, Iowa — Sunday was arguably the most important day of Ted Cruz’s life. It was also totally bizarre; his closing pitch risked being turned into a circus as a reality TV star and a disgraced Fox News pundit appeared to be competing to make the weirdest endorsement of the Texas senator.
Cruz had barely been in the Senate for six months when he made his first visit to the Hawkeye State to address several hundred politically-minded pastors at a closed-door meeting. In the 30 months since then, he’s held events in 98 of the state’s 99 counties trying to win hearts and minds from Davenport to Sioux City (he’ll hit the 99th county a few hours before caucusing starts on Monday). And since an outsize part of his strategy depends on his appeal to evangelical voters, it should come as little surprise that his final Iowa pitch was about as overtly religious as possible.
Sunday was Cruz’s last full day to sell voters on himself before they cast the first ballots in the 2016 presidential nominating contest. Cruz himself has suggested that if he loses Iowa to Donald Trump (which current polling indicates is likely), the mogul may be unstoppable. Yet given the day’s importance, the events he held across the state were all a little curious, and highlighted how tough it could be for Cruz to win the nomination without totally wrecking his already uphill chances in a general election.
Cruz opted to make his final pitch flanked by two of the most controversial figures on the right: Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty star who has very strong and specific feelings about gay sex; and Glenn Beck, whose now-defunct Fox News show lost dozens of advertisers after he claimed Obama was racist. (Cruz suggested throughout the day, by the way, that Beck got kicked off Fox because he foresaw the rise of ISIS.)
You might expect campaign stops with these characters to be odd, and you would be right. Robertson, for instance, started a small media kerfuffle by saying same-sex marriage is evil and depraved.
“When a fellow like me looks at the landscape and sees the depravity, the perversion—redefining marriage and telling us that marriage is not between a man and a woman? Come on, Iowa!” he said.
“It is nonsense,” he continued. “It is evil. It’s wicked. It’s sinful.”
The crowd cheered.
“They want us to swallow it, you say,” he went on. “We have to run this bunch out of Washington, D.C. We have to rid the earth of them. Get ’em outta there.”
For what it’s worth, the Texas senator isn’t calling for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, and instead holds that individual states should be able to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex unions. That puts him a little closer to the political center on the issue than some conservative firebrands, but Robertson’s fire-and-brimstone sermon is also the kind of thing that could could easily alienate moderate voters Cruz would need to win over if nominated.
Before Robertson made those comments, Iowa Rep. Steve King promised that Cruz “may be spoonfeeding a little bit of Leviticus to the leftists” when he makes appointments to the court.
“They may have a little trouble digesting that, so he’ll spoon that back to them again,” he added, to audience chuckles.
King didn’t elaborate on which specific parts of Leviticus the leftists need to be spoon-fed, but the Old Testament book is famous for prohibiting the kind of behavior that Phil Robertson characterizes as wicked and sinful nonsense.
Robertson also blew on his duck whistle as he addressed an Iowa City crowd, referred to Donald Trump as Donald Duck, and delivered a lengthy soliloquy on the meaning of Acts 10 and the scriptural permissibility of eating duck meat. PETA may be after him for political correctness, he noted, but Acts 10 says Christians may eat all kinds of meat, so that is what he will do.
“That’s what you call biblical correctness,” he said.
And then, before leaving the stage, he indicated that a Cruz victory would bring a spiritual revival of sorts.
“We have got to understand, what we have in America, it’s a spiritual problem,” he said. “You get the spiritual part of America fixed and then—the, the guys who make the decisions, the political decisions, they’ll at least be godly and God will be on their side.”
“Cruz trusts God,” he concluded, flatly. “Cruz trusts James Madison. That’s why I trust Cruz.”
Sure, Robertson’s rationale for backing Cruz was not the kind of thing you often hear at a political rallies. But Glenn Beck wasn’t to be upstaged. At rallies throughout the day, he spoke more than nearly anyone else on stage—including, at times, Cruz—passing the 30-minute mark and rambling about his love for George Washington even as flustered audience members began to leave one event.
During these protracted monologues, Beck spent significantly more time talking about Washington than Cruz. And when he did discuss the candidate, he was oddly critical.
For instance, at one point he defended Cruz’s authenticity by saying that Cruz talks about the same geeky subjects using the same curious syntax in private as in public.
“Dude, you are boring,” Beck said.
And he expressed significantly more affection for Cruz’s father, Rafael, than he did for Cruz himself.
“You’re gonna kick your son’s butt if he screws it up,” Beck noted.
Beck was also totally unfazed by any audience behavior—including when an energetic attendee at the back of one event yelled, “Allah does not exist! Islam is a cult!”
After that outburst, an older man in the crowd turned to his wife soberly and said, “Islam is a cult.”
She nodded, squinting.
But while Beck said Cruz was an only marginally trustworthy dweeb, Cruz heaped praise on the Internet-TV maven: “What an extraordinary, visionary, passionate thinker.” Cruz then promised that, should he win, his wife will make sure public schools serve french fries again.
This came shortly after Beck basically gave a less-than-enthusiastic final pitch for Cruz.
“I would ask, that you would stand not for Ted, but stand for the principles that he embodies,” Beck said.
Not the most inspiring thing you can say but, hey, whatever works. And Beck’s endorsement just might, at least for Kathy Hoelzen, who attended one campaign stop with her husband, John. Kathy, who listens to Beck’s radio show every day, said she decided to caucus for Cruz because of his endorsement. Her husband was less enthused.
“I think it was a canned speech,” he said of Beck’s performance.
Beck, a recovering alcoholic, also said that anyone considering caucusing for Trump should just go to a bar instead because it would be healthier for them. And at Cruz’s last stop of the day, even the candidate seemed to realize how strange this election had already become.
“Next cycle, I think Lady Gaga is running,” he joked.
But she might have had trouble topping the celebrity-filled circus act that marked Cruz’s last full day campaigning in Iowa—one that ended not with a bang, but a duck whistle.