Cruz edging Paul with House conservatives

Greg Nash

Ted CruzTed CruzVa. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes Our most toxic export: American politick 'Never Trump' group ad compares Trump to Reagan MORE is beating Rand PaulRand PaulRepublicans question Trump's trip to Scotland Hate TV customer service? So does your senator Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate narrowly rejects expanding FBI surveillance powers MORE in the race for the hearts — and endorsements — of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus.

The Kentucky Republican initially had an edge on Cruz after a flurry of big names backed his White House bid last year.

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Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) backed the libertarian-leaning senator in April. Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashTrump muddies GOP message on protecting the Constitution Libertarian looks for anti-Trump bump The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Mich.) endorsed him a month later. And Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) signed on with Team Rand in September.

But with Paul polling in the low single digits, other Freedom Caucus members have begun rallying behind Cruz, the Texas senator and GOP firebrand who’s battling front-runner Donald Trump for first place and the anti-establishment mantle.

The flood of Freedom Caucus endorsements for Cruz comes at a pivotal moment — giving him a boost right before Monday's Iowa caucuses and the start of presidential primary voting.

This week, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who spearheaded a revolt that forced Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to resign last year, became the eighth Freedom Caucus member to endorse Cruz, the architect of the 16-day government shutdown in 2013.

Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) all endorsed Cruz earlier this month, as did Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who dropped out of the Freedom group because of its hardball tactics.

The other Freedom members who endorsed Cruz last summer and fall are Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Randy Weber (R-Texas), Jody Hice (R-Ga.) and Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.). Two Freedom allies, Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), are also in Cruz’s camp. Cruz and the Freedom Caucus share another connection as well: Cruz's new legislative director, Steve Chartan, previously served as the Freedom group's executive director.

“I am not the candidate of career politicians in Washington,” Cruz declared during Thursday’s debate in Des Moines.

Paul is backed by five Freedom members, but his last congressional endorsement came from Mulvaney way back on Sept. 21. And Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, a Democrat, is now challenging Paul for his Senate seat, putting more pressure on him to drop his bid for the White House.

The Paul-Cruz divide among the Freedom Caucus provides a glimpse into the composition of the nearly 40-member group of conservative hard-liners that formed one year ago out of frustration with GOP leadership.

Both Amash and Paul are privacy advocates who hail from the libertarian wing of the GOP, and both fought last year to kill the government-surveillance Patriot Act.  

“The support for Rand and Ted by Freedom Caucus members is really a reflection of who we are: a very diverse group with some who tilt more libertarian and others who are more traditional conservatives,” Meadows said in an interview. “There is a belief that both men are willing to stand in support of our Constitution and limited-government intervention.

“I know that both Senator Cruz and Senator Paul have a true desire to return Washington, D.C., back to all the freedom-loving Americans,” Meadows added.

Meadows’ endorsement carries symbolic significance for a presidential candidate who’s vying to be the outsider in the GOP primary race. Boehner allies tried to make an example of Meadows last summer, temporarily stripping him of his Oversight subcommittee gavel after he opposed leadership on a key trade bill.

Meadows responded in kind by introducing a resolution to oust Boehner from the top leadership job. While a vote was never held, the simple threat of the Meadows resolution peeled away support from Boehner, and the Speaker announced in September he was resigning from Congress.

Trump has not received a single endorsement from a member of Congress though he’s friendly with some Freedom Caucus members. And some aides to Freedom Caucus members have said they are supporting the real-estate mogul and reality TV star in the primary.

So far, Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) hasn’t weighed in on the presidential primary race. But his endorsement would be a boon for whoever lands it. Jordan, Mulvaney, Labrador and Meadows will speak Wednesday at Heritage Action’s annual policy summit on a panel titled: “How the House Freedom Caucus is changing the game for conservatives.”

Other high-profile Freedom members, including Reps. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Dave Brat (R-Va.), also are staying out of the endorsement game — at least for now.

“I have too many friends that came in to support me and Donald Trump is certainly one of them,” said Brat, who was joined by Trump at a campaign event in Richmond, Va., last spring.

“While I'm not endorsing,” Brat said, “I am definitely going to vote for one of the outsiders who can restore confidence in our national security and our economy.”

Mulvaney, who serves as a co-chairman for Paul’s campaign in eastern states, said he he’s sticking with the Kentucky Tea Party favorite. But Mulvaney predicted others in the Freedom Caucus could soon get behind Trump or Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioVa. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes The Hill's 12:30 Report Rubio Senate challenger drops out MORE (R-Fla.), who’s vying to become the establishment favorite in the race.

“My guess is we may have a Trump supporter or two, and a couple folks for Marco, before the campaign season is over,” Mulvaney said in an interview. But he doubts two establishment candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, “will have much luck with the group.”

Bush still leads the endorsement sweepstakes — 31 Republicans on Capitol Hill are officially backing his candidacy, according to The Hill’s endorsement tracker. Rubio, Bush’s one-time political protégé, is close behind with 27 lawmaker endorsements.

In addition to winning support from Labrador, Amash and Mulvaney, Paul secured endorsements from two other Freedom members, Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.) and retiring Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.). Two anti-establishment lawmakers who do not belong to the Freedom group, Reps. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), also are backing Paul, as is his state’s senior senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).