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Cruz hopes evangelical roots will bolster his New York campaign

ALBANY – As Sen. Ted Cruz shifts his presidential campaign focus to New York State, he likely will find many Republicans in the Empire State more closely aligned with Democrats in his home state of Texas.

If Cruz has a chance to make any serious inroads against New York resident and delegate frontrunner Donald Trump, it is with a group he has relied on in other states: evangelical Christians. These are people who know and appreciate what Cruz meant when he lashed out at liberal “New York values” earlier this year.

“As soon as that comment was made, it resonated,” said the Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a statewide evangelical Christian advocacy organization that boasts 6,400 church members.

McGuire is among a group of evangelical leaders Cruz is relying on to get out the vote April 19, and, before then, for help filling events with enthusiastic backers. His first chance at that upstate comes Thursday, when Cruz will hold a rally at a Christian school in Scotia, an Albany suburb along the Mohawk River.

The Cruz camp on Wednesday said he will be appearing in Buffalo next week. Details have not yet been released.

Months after his comment about “New York values,” Cruz on Wednesday traveled to the Bronx, an unlikely place to look for GOP votes since it is a county with 491,000 Democrats and only 37,000 Republicans.

“Let’s be clear: the people of New York know exactly what those values are. They’re the values of liberal Democratic politicians,” Cruz told reporters after protesters greeted him. He identified his targets as Democrats like Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer as among politicians who have been “hammering” New Yorkers with left-leaning policies.

Cruz met with about 75 faith leaders at a Bronx restaurant, said Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a Democrat who is also an ordained minister. Diaz, one of the State Senate’s most socially conservative members, organized the meeting after he publicly urged Cruz to visit the Bronx. “We definitely agree that there are different values in New York,” Diaz said of Cruz’s statements. He added, “There’s no place for us conservative, religious people.”

Cruz’s outreach to evangelical groups in New York is hardly a surprise for a campaign trying to make inroads against the GOP delegate leader.

“Trump has the lead in New York and is favored to win New York. But if you’re Cruz and trying to be competitive, you go to where your strength is with the evangelicals and build it from there,” said Mike Long, the state Conservative Party chairman, whose party is sought after as a second ballot line by many GOP candidates.

“That’s a base vote, no question about that. But I believe there are many conservative Republicans throughout the state who tend to support Cruz. And after Wisconsin, people will be taking a second look at what’s going on,” Long added.

Cruz has not announced any further upstate visits yet, though McGuire said the campaign is looking at possible events, helped by evangelical leaders, in the Buffalo area, in the Rochester suburb of Henrietta and the Syracuse area.

Though New York is not known as an evangelical state, McGuire said there are more than 600,000 evangelical church congregants in the state, with a heavy presence upstate and in some Long Island communities. Voter registration numbers have not grown in the past six months, and McGuire believes Cruz can make inroads with the socially conservative elements of the GOP in New York.

“Can we bring victory? I don’t know if I can say that, but we can close that gap, and evangelicals can have their vote heard,” said McGuire, a Buffalo-born minister who runs the Rochester-based church group.

McGuire said he has been working with evangelical groups in other states and that Christian groups have been quietly working on Cruz’s behalf for weeks. He said he expected Cruz to announce the opening of campaign offices in several locations in New York.

Cruz has a natural base with evangelicals, McGuire said, and he noted that a church pastor holds great influence over the level of interest congregants might have in the upcoming primary. Literature is set to go out this weekend to evangelical parishioners outlining the different social and other positions of the presidential primary candidates.

“I don’t have to tell you who to vote for … but people in a church community do understand who people are supporting and that has great sway over other members in that congregation,” McGuire said.

McGuire also runs a political action committee, and on Wednesday afternoon he announced his endorsement of Cruz.

Trump told the Wall Street Journal that he will travel widely through upstate. He described the region’s economic problems as “very sad.”

He also told the newspaper: “I can’t imagine any New Yorkers wanting to vote for Cruz. He doesn’t care about New Yorkers. He doesn’t like New Yorkers. He was mocking New Yorkers.”

The Cruz campaign did not respond to questions about its New York effort.

Anthony H. Gioia, the former ambassador to Malta and a veteran GOP fundraiser, is slated to meet with Cruz’s finance committee leaders Thursday in Manhattan. A supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio until his withdrawal from the race, Gioia has been courted by the Cruz campaign in recent weeks and is expected to at least emerge as a financial contributor.

Gioia has worked on many local, statewide and national campaigns and could conceivably play a key role in New York, where Cruz maintains few contacts. But while it is expected the Cruz officials will attempt to entice Gioia into a more substantive fundraising role during the meeting, Gioia said Wednesday he has not committed to anything and is traveling to New York only for a get-acquainted lunch.

The Rev. Kevin Backus, pastor of the Bible Presbyterian Church on Grand Island, said Cruz has yet to schedule outreach attempts with Western New York evangelicals.

Still, one thing is certain, he said: “I don’t know a single evangelical who’s talking about voting for Trump.”

News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report. email: tprecious@buffnews.com

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