WASHINGTON - For the Republican presidential candidates who have found great success by sprinting away from the party establishment, there has been little point in touting endorsements from Capitol Hill lawmakers -- the very Beltway insiders whom GOP primary voters appear so eager to reject.
But there are a few notable exceptions, and one of the biggest -- Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina -- delivered his endorsement late Wednesday to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Meadows matters because he became the face of the right-wing uprising against former House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, last year. It was Meadows who signed his name to a July resolution calling for Boehner's ouster, and while he never forced a vote, the conservative grass-roots rallied behind Meadows and fed a House revolt that eventually forced Boehner's resignation three months later.
"Having an approval rating of 16 percent for Congress doesn't make a congressional endorsement worth a whole lot," Meadows admitted Thursday. "There is some thought because of my willingness to stand with the people and against the establishment it authenticates somebody's ability to stand up against the establishment."
In interviews over the summer, Meadows said he and fellow hard-line lawmakers were feeding off of the same voter fury that had propelled Donald Trump to the top of the Republican presidential field -- though he assiduously avoided taking sides in that race.
But now he has, by backing Cruz over Trump, he announced Wednesday night in a live Fox News Channel appearance.
In an interview Thursday, Meadows said backing Cruz was a wrenching decision that meant spurning two presidential candidates whom he is personally close to -- former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. But Meadows said that for conservatives, it's now by and large a two-person race, and it was time to stand and be counted.
"Right now, the choice seems to be between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz," he said. And for Meadows, the decision didn't come down to building border walls or carpet-bombing deserts but to Cruz's pledge to "restore the Constitution" -- specifically, to roll back the powers of the presidency.
"Senator Cruz, in my personal dealings with him, is willing to strictly adhere to the Constitution and wants to remove a lot of the power from the executive branch and really bring it back to the people in both the House and the Senate," he said. "That's been an important factor to me, in terms of trying to make sure that the legislative branch once again has the influence and the power that our Constitution mandates there."
Cruz has also showed a personal touch that made an impression: Cruz, as well as Huckabee, personally reached out to encourage Meadows after he filed his challenge to Boehner. "When it's your darkest days and people reach out, you don't forget," Meadows said.
Meadows readily admitted that history is hardly replete with presidents who have voluntarily relinquished power -- "The only one I know in history who has actually worked that way was George Washington" -- but he said Cruz assured him in a personal conversation held shortly after the Jan. 14 Republican debate "that he wants to limit the role of the executive branch, allow that power to be more balanced between Congress and the executive branch."
But Trump backers are raising the issue with the wrong guy: Like Cruz, Meadows was born abroad. (Meadows was born to two U.S. citizens in a U.S. military hospital in France; Cruz in Canada to a mother who was a U.S. citizen.) Meadows said he has no doubts whatsoever about Cruz's qualifications for the president.
"The litmus test is, did you go through a nationalization process or not?" he said. "I'm not running for president. . . . But I've been told by some of the most liberal and conservative constitutional lawyers that I wouldn't have a problem."
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