DES MOINES, Iowa — Two of Ted Cruz's top conservative backers, including one who endorsed Mike Huckabee when he won Iowa eight years ago, are blasting the former governor for his super PAC's attacks on Cruz's Christian faith.
In recent weeks, allies of Huckabee — himself a pastor and social conservative — have unleashed more than a million dollars in attack ads on Cruz, and specifically on whether he's really committed to the evangelical cause and upholding its values.
Key figures in Iowa who now back Cruz aren't pleased at all about the attacks.
"It’s disappointing," Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats, a key Iowa endorser for Cruz, told BuzzFeed News in an interview on Thursday. "And I love Gov. Huckabee as much as if not more than anybody. But it’s disappointing, especially coming from a campaign that’s associated with a pastor, to be questioning somebody’s sincerity in their faith."
Vander Plaats endorsed Huckabee in 2008 when he won the Iowa caucuses.
For someone to say Cruz is a "faux conservative or a faux Christian, I just find that extremely disappointing on many levels. And it does no good for the body of Christ, it does no good for the Christian testimony for that to be taking place," Vander Plaats said.
Iowa Rep. Steve King, who along with Vander Plaats has been frequently appearing on the campaign trail with Cruz, told BuzzFeed News when asked about the ads on Thursday that he considered attacks on someone's faith a "cardinal sin."
"I think that when you start attacking somebody's faith, especially when you don't know, that is a cardinal sin, and they're going to have to explain that to St. Peter," King said.
A super PAC supporting Huckabee called Pursuing America's Greatness has launched TV and radio ads in Iowa that feature two women talking about Cruz and discussing his leaked comments to donors about not prioritizing fighting same-sex marriage and his record on tithing. Tax returns released during Cruz's 2012 Senate campaign showed that he had given less than one percent of his income to charity between 2006 and 2010, less than the 10% advocated by scripture.
Though it's a super PAC and not Huckabee's campaign itself who have produced the ads, Huckabee himself has publicly criticized Cruz over his tithing record.
“I just think it’s hard to say God is first in your life if he’s last in your budget," Huckabee told BuzzFeed News in an interview last week.
Vander Plaats and King aren't the only Cruz endorsers who aren't happy about the attacks.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who endorsed Cruz on Tuesday, said in an interview on Wednesday he had heard of the ads but had not seen them and had not yet spoken with Cruz about them. But he said that he would prefer that campaign season attacks be based on policy, not on personal matters.
"I would prefer that evangelical candidates not attack each other, period," Perkins told BuzzFeed News. "And if you’re going to draw distinctions, do it on policy."
Perkins, who backed Huckabee in 2008, noted that the issue was likely being raised because "for evangelicals it's an issue as to whether or not someone tithes."
This time around, Vander Plaats and Perkins are among the key religious conservative endorsements for Cruz, who has effectively locked up evangelical support in Iowa and marginalized previous favorites like Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
Cruz himself has struck a much less aggressive tone in responding to the questions raised about his tithing, acknowledging that "I have not been as faithful in this aspect of my walk as I should have been" in an interview with Christian Broadcast News.
Reached by email, Nick Ryan, the operative who runs Pursuing America's Greatness, defended the ads and sharply criticized Vander Plaats and King.
"Steve King is an embarrassment to Iowa," Ryan said in an email. "As a constituent of his, I look forward to Feb. 2 so the process to replace him as my congressman can begin.”
Ryan said of Vander Plaats, whom he called a friend, "He has never expressed any concern or problem with the ad to me. Bob is very charitable with his time and I’m sure this concerns him as much as Ted Cruz’s dangerous position on traditional marriage, which flies in the face of everything Bob believes about the protection of biblical marriage. I’m sure he struggles with that part of Ted Cruz too.”
Ryan echoed Huckabee's comments to BuzzFeed News last week, saying, "He’s a millionaire with a spouse that works at Goldman Sachs and his campaign touts faith in God first, so it’s hard to imagine how God ends up last in his budget.”
In an email, Nick Everhart, who made the ads for the super PAC, criticized the criticisms, saying, "They are terrified they made a bad business decision, this has nothing to do with appropriateness of challenging Ted Cruz's strategically and intentionally thought out exploitation of believers."
Huckabee himself has struggled to gain traction this year in Iowa, and has seemed increasingly aggrieved in recent weeks over Cruz's success with evangelicals. He has embraced Cruz's main rival Donald Trump, appearing with him on Thursday night at Trump's veterans-themed event he held instead of going to the debate, and in a radio interview on Friday he dismissed his former evangelical endorsers.
In an interview this week, he claimed he didn't have the support of evangelical leaders in 2008 when he won the caucuses. "What people forget is eight years ago the evangelical leaders didn't rally around me or support me," he said. (In 2008, he received the endorsement of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Perkins, and Vander Plaats.)
"A lot of the people did, but the leaders supported Romney, or McCain, many of them supported Thompson and quite frankly if the evangelicals had truly rallied with me, I think I would have gone on to win the nomination without any doubt."
In recent weeks, he's also claimed that the reason evangelical leaders have not backed him is because they are afraid they will be unable to fundraise if he implements Christian policy.
Huckabee campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley said he had seen the ads and they are "absolutely positively not an attack on Ted Cruz’s faith. It’s an attack on Ted Cruz’s honesty."
"He has been caught now on multiple occasions saying one thing in Muscatine and another thing to a crowd in Manhattan," Gidley said. (Ryan said, "The ad clearly depicts Manhattan Ted is different than Muscatine Ted.")
A Cruz campaign spokesman did not return a request for comment.
Andrew Kaczynski contributed reporting.