GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA— On Saturday, the day of South Carolina’s Republican primary election, Ted Cruz’s Greenville campaign office was buzzing with volunteers—and at least one man who said he was with Keep the Promise, the super PAC that operates as Cruz’s hugely well-funded shadow campaign apparatus.
The man, a familiar face to many in the room, was waiting to meet with someone from the campaign. That little show of casual coordination between campaign and outside group typifies the Cruz strategy, and it was supposed to be his secret South Carolina weapon. Cruz, and the groups campaigning for him, spent more money and manpower than any other candidate in a state tailor-made for his evangelical conservative message, only to come in third place. Somehow, it wasn’t enough.
South Carolina, population 4.8 million, is a state of churches. Big, sprawling ones with even bigger parking lots, small shacks a few feet off the road with peeling white paint, and every conceivable Christian house of worship in between. The state’s top-selling speciality license plate, adorning more than 850,000 vehicles, reads “In God We Trust.” Sixty-five percent of the state identifies as a born-again, evangelical Christian.
The Upstate, home to Greenville and Spartanburg, makes up the bulk of the state’s religious stronghold. It lays at the top of the spine of South Carolina: Interstate 26. The largely four-lane highway, dotted with water towers, industrial buildings, and the occasional discount hotel, runs east through Columbia and down to Charleston, home of the Low Country, whose conservatives tend to lean “fiscally conservative but socially different.” In the midlands lay the moderates.
And first-time voters can come from anywhere, because state laws permit Democrats and Republicans alike to vote in whichever primary they choose.
On paper, Cruz and South Carolina—especially the Upstate—go together like sacramental wine and wafers. His father, Rafael Cruz, is a pastor. He launched his campaign at the evangelical Liberty University. He garnered endorsements from more than 500 ministers in the state. Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson stumped for him, bible in hand. Rick Joyner, of the far-right MorningStar church, preached for him. Last Tuesday, Glenn Beck—who was out on the road campaigning for Cruz—called into his own daily radio program to suggest to his seven million listeners that God killed Antonin Scalia to show the American people how important it is to elect Ted Cruz.
Cruz resonates with people looking for a godly president.
“It’s the fact that he is a constitutionalist, the fact that he relies on his faith, and that he is staunch in what he believes in,” explained volunteer Mardi Padgett.
“He’s the best Christian conservative candidate,” another Cruz volunteer explained Saturday while cold-calling undecided voters. I asked her what she’d say to voters who declined to support Cruz.
“Just tell ‘em you’re praying for ‘em,” she said.
But conservatives in the state also dislike Washington. Ted Cruz may have earned the undying enmity of everyone in the United States Senate, but he’s still a senator. Unfortunately for Cruz, he was running against just about the only person that could conceivably make him look like a Washington insider. Everyone looks like a member of the establishment next to Donald Trump.
“He’s honest. Just think about it this way. He doesn’t have to have our money. He doesn’t have to have a bunch of company’s funds or finances, he doesn’t need it,” one Trump supporter explained. “I’m not going to say incorruptible, I’m going to say he’s not on the level that the rest of them are. He’s on a much different level, simply because he doesn’t have to be pandering or begging or beholden to anyone except his beliefs.”
When I got to Cruz headquarters on Saturday, the massive door-to-door effort was mostly over, and the campaign was trying to call as many households as possible before the polls closed.
The headquarters were located in a one-story dingy office suite, just off Interstate 385, across the street from a funeral home. Its drab rooms were filled plastic tables draped with red plastic tablecloths and dozens of foldout metal chairs. For decoration, a large picture of a gun was overlaid with the text, “We Don’t Call 911.” A snack table was sparsely spread with homemade donations, off-brand crackers, and a large bag of Xochitl tortilla chips. Texas organizer and long-time Cruz grassroots director Kaye Goolsby patrolled the room.
There were only two single-stall bathrooms—one for men and one for women—to serve the dozens of volunteers who were making the last-ditch, get-out-the-vote phone calls. The set-up led to long lines and jokes invoking the word “trans” when someone came out of a stall designated for the opposite gender.
The mood was jovial, and volunteers sounded optimistic Cruz would carry South Carolina, or at least nab second place. Midway through the day, the website Legal Insurrection published a report that Donald Trump had been in Chicago on 9/11, welcome news to the volunteers. The post was later updated to reflect it was likely a mistake.
By 1 p.m. Saturday, the campaign had made a collective 15,000 phone calls, with a goal of 33,000 by the end of the day. The day before, it made 40,000. They intended to call until the polls closed.
Most volunteers said they were receiving largely positive responses. Still, even to some callers, it was clear Cruz wasn’t doing as well as they’d hoped.
“I made a lot of calls and most of the people we called, they would say, it’s between the three,” Rebecca Farmer said.
(Here I should admit that, in order to see Cruz’s field operation with my own eyes, I made about 100 calls for Cruz, ultimately getting through to 13 or 14 people. I don’t think my contribution swayed the election. Of the 13 or 14 people I reached, almost everyone either had already voted or hung up on me. My call volume qualified me for a free bumper sticker, which went unredeemed.)
Many of the volunteers were staying at Camp Cruz, a block of rooms in the Simpsonville Value Place extended stay motel—a large white building with black plastic shutters directly overlooking Interstate 385. Some had been staying there since November, praying together in the mornings before cold calling and knocking on doors trying to convince people to vote for Cruz. There were so many volunteers, a second Camp Cruz had to be erected at a nearby Quality Inn.
Trump’s campaign stood in stark contrast. Located less than four miles away on Main Street in chic, quaint downtown Greenville, his offices were set up in a modern building with glass walls and new carpeting inside. The Trump campaign occupied the lobby and a back office of the two-story building, which is also home to a bank and an investment management firm. At the front desk were free buttons, yard signs and bumper stickers and a large cardboard cutout of Trump. In the brightly-lit, modern back office, the dozen-or-so people scattered around the room were clean-cut. All the women had perfect blowouts. The snacks were name-brand.
But by 2:30 p.m. the office had been mostly packed up into boxes. The campaign was taking the rest of the afternoon off to prepare for Trump’s victory party in Spartanburg, some 30 miles away.
The week before the primary, it was clear Trump was leading in the polls. And despite his laissez-faire Greenville office, his campaign did, according to the Daily Beast, send RVs of volunteers across the Upstate knocking on doors. Still, it was nothing compared to the massive Cruz campaign, which was bolstered by his Super PAC collective, Keep the Promise.
Matt Moore, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, told the website that Keep the Promise was the only Super PAC he knew of running a ground game in South Carolina.
“I’ll be very shocked, honestly, if Ted Cruz doesn’t win the primary,” an operative for a rival campaign told the Daily Beast the week before, citing Keep the Promise’s operations in the Upstate.
The Keep the Promise umbrella of Super PACs has so far raised tens of millions of dollars just to keep Cruz in the top three. According to Bloomberg, the group, made up of four PACs, includes Keep the Promise 1, bankrolled by an $11 million donation from billionaire Robert Mercer; Keep the Promise II, bankrolled by a $10 million donation from Texas investor Toby Neugebauer; and Keep the Promise III, bankrolled by a $15 million donation from a Texas fracking family. Collectively, Keep the Promise raised $38.5 million in the first half of the year.
Though campaign finance laws require PACs operate separately from campaigns, Keep the Promise effectively helmed Cruz’s South Carolina campaign, spending $1 million on radio ads last fall alone. Strategist Kellyanne Conway told the Washington Post that by last week, the group had spent $2.5 million on South Carolina ad time.
In November, Bloomberg reported, the umbrella hired 14 full-time field directors and county organizers to helm the South Carolina operation. According to the Wall Street Journal, a canvassers training program began Nov. 28 and door-to-door campaigning began Dec. 7. In Nevada, which holds its Republican primary on Tuesday, they’ve been running a field and mail operation and last week launched a $573,000 television campaign.
According to the Daily Beast, Keep the Promise has operated more like a shadow campaign than a traditional Super PAC by taking on “typical campaign operations” like gathering voter data, targeting voters, and canvassing across the state. The PAC alone reportedly hired as many as 150 people, who knocked on as many as 100,000 doors leading up to Election Day. And that’s in addition to the campaign volunteers.
Keep the Promise staff explained that the group has been door-knocking across the state, in a few targeted regions and counties, since last November. In early January, those door-knockers started focusing on persuasion: identifying likely Republican primary voters who favor an Evangelical Christian candidate, knocking on their doors, and having conversations aimed at persuading them to back Cruz.
Dan Tripp, who headed South Carolina for Scott Walker’s presidential campaign, is currently in charge of the Keep the Promise operation.
“It’s hard, dirty work,” Tripp told the Daily Beast. “If we’re asking somebody to go out and knock on doors for eight hours, that’s a lot of gas, that’s a lot of time and it’s hard work. So we’ve built a budget around paying our canvassers.”
Still, in an interview with the Washington Post last week, Tripp seemed ready for a fight, whether it was there or not.
South Carolina, Tripp suggested, was “where we have a chance to go mano a mano with Trump and, you know, like we did in Iowa, show that a real ground game can make the difference.”
You know what happened instead. Not only did Trump pull off his expected victory, but, somehow, Cruz came in third—by a mere thousand votes!—to Marco Rubio, who, in the home stretch of the campaign, had picked up endorsements from Governor Nikki Haley and a few other members of the South Carolina Republican establishment.
Despite his disappointing finish, Cruz still delivered what sounded like a victory speech Saturday night.
“Friends, we have once again made history. You—the good people of South Carolina, and our incredible volunteers all across the country—continue to defy the pundits and produce extraordinary results,” he declared. “In Iowa, they said it could not be done. And we won. In New Hampshire, they said a conservative candidate could not compete. And we defied expectations. And tonight—despite millions of dollars in false attack ads, despite the unified opposition of all the political establishment—South Carolina has given us another remarkable result.”
As Cruz spoke, Greg Halvorson, a Camp Cruz volunteer, shook his head and typed on his laptop. Afterward, I asked him how he felt. “I thought this was a winnable state,” he said. “I live in Nashville, it was a five-hour drive. And I was like, ‘Well they’re putting us up, man. I’ll go full-time, I think he can win this.’ It’s depressing, but it’s true.”
What had he been typing? A status update at his Facebook page, where he posts as “The Conservative Hammer.”
“Hammers,” he wrote to his subscribers, “because I believed he could win, I came to South Carolina to call, canvas, and campaign for Ted Cruz… I worked diligently to reach and inform voters, believing that a collective effort by a passionate, coordinated crew would mean victory — I was WRONG… Ted got THIRD… Every hour was a waste — I FAILED… He FAILED… South Carolina FAILED… And all of it - every MINUTE I’ve spent ferociously defending Freedom - has been a pathetic WASTE OF TIME.”