Sen. Ted Cruz heads into this weekend’s Values Voter Summit looking to capture his third straight straw poll victory at the annual gathering of social conservatives, a victory that would send the message he’s their pick for channeling their anger with Washington into votes in the GOP presidential primary.
The freshman Texas Republican arrives having led a fight in the Senate to stop hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money going to Planned Parenthood next year. He lost, but social conservatives were happy he took the stand.
“I have never seen Ted back down,” said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, host of the three-day summit, who said Mr. Cruz enjoys a strong relationship with social conservatives.
“He understands the group and he has also established a track record in this city of challenging the establishment. He is a fighter and they know that and they like that,” Mr. Perkins said.
Mr. Cruz is one of eight GOP candidates slated to appear at the summit, which is expected to draw more than 2,600 activists from around the country.
Also speaking are businessman Donald J. Trump, the current GOP front-runner, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
The event will focus on the cultural issues that social conservatives hold dear, and is expected to feature calls to defend religious liberty from the courts and the executive branch.
Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing her Christian faith, will receive a “Cost of Discipleship Award.”
Mr. Cruz won the 2013 summit straw poll amid his push to halt funding for Obamacare — an effort that led the government into a 16-day shutdown that only ended after GOP leaders relented and agreed to pass a spending bill that didn’t target the health law.
This year, he had demanded the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to use the spending process to block money from Planned Parenthood, in the wake of videos that critics say show officials from that organization negotiating the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses for research purposes.
The Senate rejected his plan Thursday, voting 52-47 to reject a spending bill that withheld money for Planned Parenthood.
“Is it so impossible with majorities in both houses for Republicans to win a fight on anything?” Mr. Cruz said Thursday.
Mr. Cruz captured 42 percent of the straw poll vote in 2013, followed by Mr. Carson and Mr. Santorum, who each won 13 percent of the vote. In 2014, Mr. Cruz won with 25 percent of the vote, followed by 20 percent for Mr. Carson and 12 percent for Mr. Huckabee.
Mr. Trump, Mr. Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina lead the field, harnessing an intense anti-Washington sentiment among GOP primary voters. But some political analysts, including at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, are questioning how long the current leaderboard will last.
In a breakdown of the race released Thursday, the think tank listed Mr. Trump, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Fiorina as “Longshot Frontrunners” and argued that rivals such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz are assembling campaigns that are better constructed for the long haul.
The analysis said Mr. Cruz, who raised $1 million in the 48 hours after last week’s debate, could be well-positioned to capture the anti-Beltway voters should the three front-running outsiders fall.
Mr. Cruz’s allies are counting on him building support as others drop out. He already picked up some of Scott Walker’s supporters and donors after the Wisconsin governor withdrew from the race on Monday and some expect him to be the biggest beneficiary if Mr. Trump struggles.
“Trump is the John the Baptist of Ted Cruz,” said Mike Gonzales, Mr. Cruz’s Evangelical outreach leader in South Carolina. “I believe Trump is going to pave the way for the true conservative to come through and that is going to be Ted Cruz.”
Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader, a Christian group in Iowa, said he believes Mr. Cruz has the best infrastructure of support in the Hawkeye State and said that some of the other candidates eyeing the conservative mantle are struggling to keep pace.
“People still like Governor Huckabee,” he said. “They still like Senator Santorum. I still hear buzz about Bobby Jindal, but they are going to need some sort of game changer to put them into the upper bracket [with Mr. Cruz] and give them the fuel needed to sustain it.”