As negative ads pile up in Iowa, Ted Cruz plots a bigger footprint

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz is battling to keep pace in Iowa with his most aggressive push yet
  • Cruz's campaign says he will launch a 36-county, six-day tour right after the new year

Washington (CNN)Ted Cruz, staring at hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative advertisements against him in Iowa that show only signs of growing, is battling to keep pace there with his most aggressive push yet to maintain his momentum in the Hawkeye State.

On Wednesday, the day that a fourth and fifth independent group launched paid media campaigns attacking Cruz as out of touch with Iowa Republicans, Cruz's campaign sent word that he will launch a 36-county, six-day tour right after the new year, his most extensive trip of the state so far. Cruz is expected to spend much of January solidifying his lead in Iowa, where he has risen from the middle of the pack to front-runner status over the course of two months.
But that surge is also inviting scrutiny. Cruz returns to Iowa as five independent groups, most run by backers of Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee, are stirring voters' doubts by spending about $600,000 against the Texas senator in direct mail, digital and radio advertisements and on television. On Wednesday, two of those groups tied to a prominent Iowa GOP operative released new advertisements that paint Cruz as being less consistent than he makes himself out to be in Iowa town halls and churches.
    That negative messaging has yet to resonate with Iowa Republicans, 31% of whom said in the most recent poll done by the Des Moines Register that they plan to support Cruz. But the intensifying offensive speaks to just how much noise will surround Cruz as he seeks to deliver his message in person in the run-up to the Feb. 1 caucuses.
    "Ted Cruz has been parading around Iowa trying to hoodwink conservatives, and these ads showcase that he's willing to say anything to get elected," said Nick Ryan, the Iowa strategist behind much of the advertising. "Fact is, he's wrong on the issues and values that Iowa conservatives really care about."
    Cruz has looked to characterize recent attacks like these in Iowa and elsewhere as a validation of his campaign's strength, taking the most pride in the daily hits from Rubio's campaign.
    "I don't think it's surprising that he's attacking me and that other candidates in the field are attacking me. Right now, we're winning," he told Fox News on Tuesday.
    For months, Cruz remained untouched by Republican spenders, allowing him to quietly organize on the ground and raise cash to finance later advertising. But as his rivalry with Rubio escalated in the aftermath of the CNBC debate in October, American Encore, a nonprofit run by Rubio supporter Sean Noble, invested $200,000 in lashing Cruz for his votes to curtail some of the National Security Agency's powers.
    Then, at the beginning of December, the pro-ethanol America's Renewable Future unveiled a three-week, six-figure campaign meant to show Cruz, an opponent of the state's ethanol interests, as too cozy with the oil lobby. And this week, Ryan's two groups, Pursuing America's Greatness, the principal super PAC backing Huckabee, and the Iowa Progress Project launched their anti-Cruz salvos. Ryan said the groups would spend around $100,000 and $200,000 respectively through next week. A nonprofit backing Rubio also began this week to litter Iowa Republicans with anti-Cruz mailers.
    American Encore and America's Renewable Future are no longer on the airwaves, but the total negative push comes close to outpunching Cruz and his allies, who have been cautious about sinking much early cash into Iowa. Cruz's campaign spent $315,000 on its first round of Iowa television and radio, which only began last month (though campaigns often pay less for the same time as outside groups do). And Cruz's super PACs have been similarly slow to invest in Iowa-specific messaging, though they recently launched a $600,000 early-state media plan.
    But Cruz has been working the state hard, appearing in Iowa nearly every weekend for much of the fall as he ramped up his field operation. And the Texas Republican heads into a likely one-on-one fight for the Iowa crown, his campaign is organizing the "Cruzin' to Caucus" bus tour across many of the state's harder-to-reach counties.
    Cruz is also attracting more arrows from the candidates who have essentially based their entire campaigns in Iowa. On Wednesday, Huckabee, once envisioned as a chief Cruz rival, claimed in a statement that Cruz was not as much of a hardliner on gay marriage as he describes himself.
    Huckabee's super PAC then picked up on that line of attack in a new radio spot, titled "Two Teds," accusing the Texas senator of pandering to New York fundraisers "who don't share our conservative Iowa values."
    Despite the target now firmly on his back, Cruz is appearing increasingly confident about his chance in Iowa, boasting to reporters Wednesday in Oklahoma that he was winning in Iowa by "a significant margin" and once again predicting a two-man race between him and Donald Trump.
    And Cruz, who is usually quick to stress his political standing does not rely solely on any one state, did admit Tuesday on Fox News that he is largely pinning his hopes on Iowa.
    "What we're seeing in New Hampshire and what we're seeing in Iowa is really a microcosm of what we're seeing nationwide," Cruz said, arguing that conservatives are consolidating around his campaign, before adding: "Iowa is further along in that."