(CNN) — Ted Cruz has successfully courted Bob Vander Platts, Iowa’s main Christian powerbroker, winning his endorsement Thursday that was sought feverishly by about half the Republican field. Now, Cruz in closing in on winning the backing of another top social conservative networker: Tony Perkins.
“There’s clearly movement going toward Ted, and I think he’s making all the right moves,” Perkins told CNN Thursday. “But from a timing standpoint, I’m still watching, waiting.”
Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council, sits at the top of a pair of sprawling social conservative networks, the Conservative Action Project and the Council for National Policy, that are the hidden hub of the forces looking to push the Republican Party further right.
He’s also very controversial. The former Louisiana state representative has attracted controversy, implying a connection between pedophilia and homosexuality and making critical comments about Islam. The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled his organization a “hate group.”
“Perkins’ xenophobic and irresponsible spew has no place in American democracy but that won’t stop Ted Cruz from chasing after his credentials — in fact it’s hard to tell which of them is more reckless, hateful or extreme,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokesman for the Hillary Clinton-aligned super PAC Correct the Record.
Cruz’s campaign has theorized that wooing the grasstops will pay off with the grassroots, and targeted more than 400 of the evangelical movement’s top leaders. With activist networks quick to follow their example, the field generals can train their men to vote for candidates like Cruz in Iowa and South Carolina, the two states where the Texan thinks his profile will play well with their large born-again Christian bases.
“We will be going all-in for Sen. Ted Cruz,” Vander Plaats said at a press conference Thursday. “We have found him as a man of deep character. A man that we can fully trust, who has a consistency of convictions, who loves his god, loves his spouse, and who loves his family.”
Vander Plaats is key for Iowa, but Perkins could be more helpful nationally, as leaders of the professional conservative apparatus jump at the chance to energize Cruz’s surging campaign.
Over dinners and phone calls, Perkins has become one of Cruz’s few defenders in a city that harbors significant ill-will for his scorched-earth Republicanism. It’s not just policy: Cruz looks to Perkins for political counsel as well, and the pair talks a few times a month about the campaign or the social conservative agenda.
“It’s one thing to get an endorsement from a megachurch,” said Rep. Mark Sanford before he introduced Cruz in his South Carolina district last month. But, “in as much as there is a such thing as mainstream Christian evangelical, I would suspect he represents it.”
Perkins, officially, remains uncommitted. But as he stood on the stage Cruz last month at Bob Jones University, it was difficult for him to hide his affection. Perkins acknowledges that — in a field full of social conservatives who Perkins see as allies — he has had a special relationship with one of them.
“All these guys are my friends and someone’s going to get their feelings hurt,” Perkins said said at the time. “You get a lot of guys who say they want your help when you’re running, and then they forget about you when you get there. Ted was not that way.”
The chances of endorsing Cruz were bolstered when Perkins’ close friend from their days in Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, dropped out of the race. And he doesn’t talk about any other candidate nearly as glowingly.
Even with Vander Plaats and Perkins in his corner, Cruz’s efforts to consolidate the evangelical vote is far from complete in a field here a half-dozen Republicans can claim the mantle of the religious right. But Monday’s CNN/ORC poll found in Iowa that more evangelicals backed Cruz than any other candidate, and Perkins could help get more.
“He has a long reach, no doubt about it,” said Phil Burress, head of the Ohio group Citizens for Community Values.
Cruz has quietly cultivated networks like these. When Cruz managed to hear of Burress’ little-known powwow of Ohio Christians, the presidential candidate was the only one to cut a video and send it along, Burress said.
“Thank you, friends, for everything you’re doing. Thank you Phil Burress,” Cruz told the crowd in a five-minute video shared with CNN. “The sleeping giant is stirring.”