WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz is banking on his popularity in the South to put him on the path to the GOP presidential nomination. But, in talking about their rabble-rousing colleague, Republican senators from those states are taking the Southern mindset of "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
Ahead of Cruz's one-week trip around the South starting Friday, senators who represent the region either sidestepped questions about Cruz's popularity in their states or tried to be as diplomatic as possible, even though they largely represent safe Republican seats.
While the Texas Republican is rising in presidential primary polls and is popular among grassroots conservatives, he has notoriously butted heads with Republican senate leadership and has yet to receive an endorsement from any of his colleagues.
The trip is part of the Cruz campaign’s heavy investment in Southern states that will be voting in March of 2016 — earlier than in previous cycles — in what's being called the "SEC Primary."
"He's been to Oklahoma more than the rest of the candidates combined. Are you aware of that? He's coming back there again before Christmas," Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe pointed out.
Inhofe complimented Cruz for "recognizing how important Oklahoma is.” Beyond that, Inhofe maintained he hasn’t endorsed anyone yet and called Cruz one of "several good friends in the race.”
Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who is up for re-election in 2016 and faces some nominal primary challengers, cautioned that "we're a long way from the nomination.” Shelby described Cruz's strategy of investing in Southern states as "smart" and declined to characterize him as a "troublemaker" in the Senate.
"I've worked with Sen. Cruz on a number of issues," Shelby said. "He's a smart man, and he's doing OK. I don't know about troublemaker. People have different views about different things."
When asked if he considered Cruz an effective lawmaker, Shelby left it at: "Sen. Cruz is very bright and ambitious — this place is full of them.”
But is he good at legislating and working with other senators? “He's probably good at anything he sets his mind to,” Shelby responded.
Shelby signed on last week as a co-sponsor to a bill introduced by Cruz that would allow governors to opt out of accepting Syrian refugees.
In Cruz’s "Take off with Ted" tour, which kicks off later this week, Cruz will campaign in Richmond, Va.; Atlanta and Savannah, Ga.; Mobile and Birmingham, Ala.; Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Okla.
Several senators who represent those states — and others in the South voting in March — have served in the upper chamber for years and have close ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In his three-year tenure in the Senate, Cruz has repeatedly angered Republican leadership, going as far as to call McConnell a "liar" on the Senate floor.
Cruz was also furious with Senate Republicans' campaign arm for getting involved in GOP primaries in 2014. After losing to Southern senators — Sens. Lamar Alexander, Thad Cochran and Lindsey Graham — in primaries last cycle, all three of their tea party challengers have endorsed Cruz for president.
Alexander declined to comment on Cruz's popularity in his home state of Tennessee. "I think I'll let the pollsters and the voters make those comments," he said.
Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson — who is also up for reelection in 2016, and so far faces only a fringe GOP primary challenger — was more blunt in providing a reasoning for not wanting to talk about Cruz. "I'm not being rude. I'm being smart," he said.
"I'm going to be on the ballot in 2016 with whoever the nominee is,” he continued. “It's up to voters to decide — not me. I'm not going to handicap anybody running for president."
Sen. David Perdue, the other Republican senator from Georgia, said given his state's importance in the primary this cycle, he's focusing on "influencing all presidential candidates” and not just Cruz.
Asked specifically about Cruz and his effectiveness in the Senate, Perdue responded, "I don't judge my colleagues here. I think we're all trying to change the direction of our country."