WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz withdrew from a fundraiser in Texas, his wife Heidi stepped in to charm donors. A major backer uses her whenever she needs to close a deal. Another is planning a women’s only event featuring Mrs. Cruz.
Heidi Cruz, a Harvard Business School graduate and former Bush administration official, has emerged as a central figure in her husband’s campaign, charming on-the-fence donors while acting as a bridge to the Republican establishment.
The effort to broaden Ted Cruz’s appeal is crucial as he soars in the polls. He has long had a strong base of support among conservative Republican activists, but he has alienated moderates and the party’s senior leadership, partly because of his penchant for confrontation, including leading an effort to shut down the government in 2013.
Whatever people may think of her husband, Heidi Cruz tells potential donors and supporters, he is a man of his word, cool under pressure and won’t shy from a fight to implement the free market principles they believe in. Several donors interviewed say her pitch has helped to win them over.
While it is not unusual for spouses to serve as character witnesses, what sets Heidi Cruz apart is her role as a bridge to the Republican establishment and the zeal she brings to it. Many political spouses, including fellow Republican candidate Jeb Bush’s wife, Columba, and President Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, engage in politics only reluctantly.
But Cruz, on leave from her job as a Goldman Sachs executive in Houston, has immersed herself in the 2016 presidential race. She not only woos donors but takes part in strategy sessions, bringing her business savvy to the effort to keep the campaign’s budget as lean as possible.
When she goes out on the campaign trail, she sometimes brings along the couple’s daughters, aged five and seven, and says it is a good learning opportunity for them.
Cruz fundraiser Aaron Sean Poynton, who taps donors inside the Washington “Beltway,” said audiences find Heidi Cruz relatable, particularly women who identify with the challenges of juggling career with family. An event she did in October was so successful that Poynton is planning a women’s only event in January.
One of Heidi Cruz’s chief missions is to bolster her husband’s fundraising network and broaden his base of support beyond the evangelical voters and Tea Party activists who have long been his most ardent fans.
Winning over establishment voters to Ted Cruz may be a tough sell, as Heidi Cruz herself acknowledges. The Texan senator was roundly criticized over the summer when he called Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell a liar from the Senate floor in a spat over the Export-Import Bank.
“Got it. Got the memo,” said Heidi Cruz, cracking a smile in an interview with Reuters. “I feel bad, I feel sad that they have this view of Ted. First of all, do I think they’re wrong on Ted? Of course, but to their detriment, because he’s a great guy.”
Heidi Cruz is focusing heavily on courting entrepreneurs - she meets them in small groups - as well as women voters and supporters of failed Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas.
“She has all the facts on the tip of her tongue and is a lot like her husband in that way,” said Karen Henry, co-founder of one of the top public relations firms in Texas, the PR Boutique. Henry said she had been leaning toward supporting Cruz, but Heidi Cruz’s presentation was the clincher.
Mica Mosbacher, a veteran Republican fundraiser, supported the establishment candidate that Cruz ousted in a Senate primary in 2012. Now she is supporting Cruz’s presidential run and credits Heidi Cruz for winning her over.
Mosbacher said that when she is courting new donors, she often enlists Mrs. Cruz to close the deal because she trots out polling data and makes her pitch all about electability to counter more moderate Republicans who suggest that Cruz is too conservative to win a general election.
In visits to states like Virginia and North Carolina, Heidi Cruz tries to soften her husband’s hard-edged image. She regales supporters with stories about the flowers he brings her on Valentine’s Day and his adherence – despite a hectic campaign schedule - to the couple’s Sunday date nights. Cruz met her husband on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000.
“There’s no question she softens a candidate whose main obstacle to the Republican nomination may be tone and personality,” said Sara Fagen, a former Bush administration official who worked with her.
But some Republican strategists said there may be a limit to how much she can help.
“I don’t think people vote for a candidate based on their wife,” added Katie Packer, a Republican consultant who worked as Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012.
Henry, the PR firm owner, recalled co-hosting a breakfast for potential donors that the senator skipped at the last minute to vote in the Senate. Heidi stood in for him.
“I know people are angry,” Henry recalled Cruz saying to disappointed donors who had expected to see her husband. “What can we do?” she asked. The answer was to have the senator call and apologize and ask for their support.
At this stage, Cruz is not tapping her network of Wall Street contacts, nor is she trying to bring around her former colleagues in the Bush administration, where she worked as an aide to then-U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick before joining the staff of the White House National Security Council.
“They know my phone number,” she said. “And when they’re ready, they will call. I’m not going to go twist their arm. And when they come, we will welcome them with open arms.”
Editing by Caren Bohan and Ross Colvin