In June, Ted Cruz promised on NPR that opposition to gay marriage would be “front and center” in his 2016 campaign.
In July, he said the Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage was the “very definition of tyranny” and urged states to ignore the ruling.
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But in December, behind closed doors at a big-dollar Manhattan fundraiser, the quickly ascending presidential candidate assured a Republican gay-rights supporter that a Cruz administration would not make fighting same-sex marriage a top priority.
In a recording provided to POLITICO, Cruz answers a flat “No” when asked whether fighting gay marriage is a “top-three priority,” an answer that pleased his socially moderate hosts but could surprise some of his evangelical backers.
While Cruz’s private comments to a more moderate GOP audience do not contradict what the Republican Texas senator has said elsewhere, they demonstrate an adeptness at nuance in tone and emphasis that befits his Ivy League background. Indeed, the wording looks jarring when compared with the conservative, evangelical rhetoric he serves at his rallies, which have ballooned in size and excitement as he has moved to the front of the pack in Iowa.
And it’s a potential vulnerability that Cruz’s opposition aims to exploit in the hectic January run-up to the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. The claim about Cruz by rival campaigns isn’t so much that he changes his message to different audiences, but that the prioritization of his agenda changes.
The recording was provided to POLITICO by an attendee at the fundraiser, held Dec. 9 at the Sullivan & Cromwell law firm on Madison Avenue. The contribution levels were $10,800 to be on the host committee, $2,700 to attend a VIP reception, and $1,000 for lunch. The donors were generally moderate to liberal on social issues, and largely conservative on fiscal and national-security issues.
During the question period, one of the donors told Cruz that gay marriage was one of the few issues on which the two disagreed. Then the donor asked: “So would you say it’s like a top-three priority for you — fighting gay marriage?”
“No,” Cruz replied. “I would say defending the Constitution is a top priority. And that cuts across the whole spectrum — whether it’s defending [the] First Amendment, defending religious liberty.”
Soothing the attendee without contradicting what he has said elsewhere, Cruz added: “People of New York may well resolve the marriage question differently than the people of Florida or Texas or Ohio. … That’s why we have 50 states — to allow a diversity of views. And so that is a core commitment.”
The donor was satisfied, ending his colloquy with Cruz with a friendly: “Thanks. Good luck.”
A well-known Republican operative not affiliated with a 2016 campaign said by email when sent Cruz’s quote: “Wow. Does this not undermine all of his positions? Abortion, Common Core — all to the states? … Worse, he sounds like a slick D.C. politician — says one thing on the campaign trail and trims his sails with NYC elites. Not supposed to be like that.”
Catherine Frazier, the Cruz campaign’s national press secretary, said his answer in New York was consistent with his past statements on the issue: “These comments are nothing new. … This is nothing different from what he says all the time.”
On Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” in September, for instance, Cruz said: “The 10th Amendment says: ‘If it doesn’t mention it, it’s a question for the states.’” Talking to Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” in 2013, Cruz said: “I support marriage between one man and one woman. … But I also think it’s a question for the states. Some states have made decisions one way on gay marriage. Some states have made decisions the other way. And that’s the great thing about our Constitution, is different states can make different decisions depending on the values of their citizens.”
But an adviser to a rival campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wants to stay behind the scenes, said the Manhattan comments could help opponents portray Cruz as “calculating” at a time voters are rewarding authenticity.
“There’s an Iowa Ted and a New York Ted,” the adviser said. “He sounds different behind closed doors.”
Frazier replied: “Cruz said his priority is to defend the Constitution. Of course marriage is a part of that, as well as free speech, gun rights, religious liberty, and the issues he discusses every day on the campaign trail. This is exactly what he said in New York and those trying to misconstrue his words are clearly desperate for something to stop his momentum. So they are resorting to dishonest attacks.”
The New York Times had earlier posted another snippet from the tape. In it, Cruz — who has been studiously friendly to Donald Trump in public, with an eye to eventually winning over his voters, and is openly courting Ben Carson’s voters — said at the fundraiser that he sees “a question of judgment” about Trump and Carson. Trump shot back on CNN’s “State of the Union”: “I have far better judgment than Ted.”
Exclusive: What Ted Cruz said behind closed doors
A secret tape from a New York fundraiser could mean trouble for a candidate selling authenticity. Ted Cruz talks to NY donors about gay marriage.
Another Republican operative who works for one of Cruz’s opponents said that comments like the ones he made in New York could risk the Texan’s appeal to supporters of Carson, who is falling as Cruz rises.
“His answer [on gay marriage was] the same as all the mainstream candidates,” the operative said. “Cruz gets Carson’s evangelical supporters because they believe him to be a born-again Christian, not because of his views on individual issues. He makes a real connection with those voters as they abandon Carson.”
Here is the full exchange:
Male questioner: “Can I ask you a question? So, I’m a big supporter. And the only issue I really disagree with you about is gay marriage. And I’m curious: Given all the problems that the country’s facing — like ISIS, the growth of government — how big a priority is fighting gay marriage going to be to a Cruz administration?”
Cruz: “My view on gay marriage is that I’m a constitutionalist and marriage is a question for the states. And so I think if someone wants to change the marriage laws of their state, the way to do so is convince your fellow citizens — and change them democratically, rather than five unelected judges. … Being a constitutionalist is integral to my approach to every other issue. So that I’m very devoted to.”
Same questioner: “So would you say it’s like a top-three priority for you — fighting gay marriage?”
Cruz: “No. I would say defending the Constitution is a top priority. And that cuts across the whole spectrum — whether it’s defending [the] First Amendment, defending religious liberty, stopping courts from making public policy issues that are left to the people. …
“I also think the 10th Amendment of the Constitution cuts across a whole lot of issues and can bring people together. People of New York may well resolve the marriage question differently than the people of Florida or Texas or Ohio. … That’s why we have 50 states — to allow a diversity of views. And so that is a core commitment.”
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