Ted Cruz’s Washington friends: The House Freedom Caucus

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WASHINGTON — There may only be one group of lawmakers that butts heads with the Washington establishment more than Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: His biggest supporters — the House Freedom Caucus.

They’re the conservative group responsible for ousting House Speaker John Boehner and the ones who agitate for Republicans to hold firm on budgets even as it throws the government into a shutdown. They relish their reputation as king slayers even as they downplay their status as the House’s new powerbrokers. And they’re the lawmakers happy to call Cruz a friend and happy to share the same enemies with him.

“He has lots of friends here,” said Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. “When you take on the establishment, it’s easy to get the rap that you’re not liked here. That’s because there are a lot of people in party leadership who don’t like you if you take them on.”

Lindsey Graham jokes about how to get away with murdering Ted Cruz

It’s not a reputation Cruz runs from. While front-runner Donald Trump has tried to paint Cruz as unlikeable and persona non grata in Washington, that’s exactly the reputation Cruz has carefully crafted to appeal to his tea party base. Exit polling has shown an electorate overwhelmingly frustrated and angry with the federal government — which is in part why the outsider Trump has soared to a strong lead in the election.

Cruz has built his campaign around being a senator who is not actually of Washington — embracing Trump early in the campaign and spending his time in the Senate making life difficult for Republican leadership. But since Cruz won in Iowa, Trump has won three states in a row. Cruz is now trying to continue his outsider campaign while fending off the “unlikeable” attacks from Trump, the ultimate non-politician.

“Ted Cruz has been on the front lines and, yeah, folks in Washington don’t like him — but folks in America don’t like Washington,” Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp said last week.

The ‘bomb-thrower caucus’

Cruz picked up four more endorsements from the group of roughly four dozen Republican House lawmakers in the past week, including Huelskamp, South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador and Amash, both of whom switched to Cruz after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race.

Roughly two-thirds of Cruz’s lawmaker endorsements come from Freedom Caucus members, and he has the support of the vast majority of the group’s members who have endorsed presidential candidates, with 15 of them backing Cruz, according to FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker.

Though members of the Freedom Caucus are quick to point out that they have never formally met with Cruz as a collective, and that lawmakers all make up their own minds on who to endorse, Cruz has an undeniable base of support with the conservative purists.

The Freedom Caucus is a band of about 40 lawmakers who pride themselves on holding conservative values and giving Republican leadership fits.

At a panel discussion at the Heritage Action Conservative Policy Forum featuring four of the group’s leaders, Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes fondly introduced them as the “bomb-thrower caucus.”

The conservatives were a constant thorn in Boehner’s side and their opposition was one of the reasons Boehner stepped down from his role and resigned from Congress. The group also stood against Boehner’s first heir apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, causing McCarthy to withdraw his name from contention and convincing Speaker Paul Ryan to run for the job as a shoo-in.

When Cruz pushed for a government shutdown in 2013 to try and force President Barack Obama’s hand on Obamacare funding, Freedom Caucus members helped force that agenda forward.

Members downplay the extent of their coordination with Cruz, though as North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows said, “Whenever we need a Senate counterpart, he’s been very willing to not only listen, (but) put forth ideas.”

‘Sometimes you’re going to tick people off’

“We’ve had lots of meetings that are more or less rap sessions, where you have free-flowing discussions about any number of public policy issues, but in terms of actually devising a strategy to kill a bill or not kill a bill, I don’t think that’s ever happened,” said Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who added he often teases his colleagues about sports at the informal gatherings.

“It’s a bunch of different congressmen from a bunch of different states who he has chosen to invite for whatever reason … and we talk about everything under the sun,” he added, saying that in private Cruz is “extremely smart, has got a pretty good wit, and he listens more than he speaks.”

Like the Freedom Caucus in the House, Cruz has a history of clashing with Republican leadership, including calling out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor.

And just like Cruz, the Freedom Caucus proudly speaks of its refusal to go along to get along.

“Sometimes you’re going to tick people off,” Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said at the Heritage Action forum in early February.

At the Heritage panel, Labrador chimed in that Republicans should take a page from Democrats, who don’t moderate their ideals. He cited the insurgent campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist.

“No one is telling him, ‘You need to be more realistic about your goals,’ and he’s the most popular person in the Democratic Party right now,” Labrador said. “You want to lose? Then become realistic and not aspirational.”

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