Establishment Republicans once dreamed of replacing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with a less bombastic alternative in 2018.
Those dreams now appear out of reach, even as a North Texas Republican with ties to state’s old political guard is on the verge of launching a challenge to the first-term senator.
A Fort Worth-based super PAC aimed at replacing Cruz with a Republican in the “leadership style” of President Ronald Reagan has barely raised any money.
Its favored candidate, Christian television executive Bruce Jacobson, last week stumbled in the early stages of a possible campaign rollout.
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And while Cruz, who has more than $5.6 million stockpiled for reelection, made plenty of enemies during his first Senate term, he’s spent the past year quietly mending fences with the same Republicans he disagreed with in the past.
Republicans both inside and outside Texas began public speculation about fielding a primary opponent against Cruz last year, citing personal disagreements with the senator. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joked last year that “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to recruit Austin Rep. Michael McCaul, who said at the time he would not “close off” the possibility. But McCaul, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, filed for reelection to his House seat Saturday.
“It’d have been a tough race. Cruz still has a very supportive, animated base,” said a GOP strategist familiar with McCaul’s thinking.
The political landscape has changed dramatically since critics first floated the idea of a primary challenge.
National Republicans who once envisioned a favorable campaign climate for more mainstream candidates during the first midterm of a Hillary Clinton presidency are now focusing their resources on protecting GOP majorities in the House and Senate.
Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, had said he wouldn’t get involved in a party primary race. But when he and Cruz appeared together at the Texas Tribune Festival in September, Cornyn endorsed his colleague.
“There’s no space between Sen. Cruz and me when it comes to doing work for our state," said Cornyn, referencing their relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Many Republicans still remain wary of Cruz.
Texans for Texas, the super PAC formed to support Jacobson, held a fundraiser in Southlake just last month. According to the most recent campaign finance report, the group had raised $25,000 as of June 30.
Its stated mission is to support “leaders who best represent Ronald Reagan’s vision and demonstrate his leadership.” Without mentioning Cruz, the group condemned elected officials who “seek to divide to win and place advancing their own political ambitions first.”
Jacobson worked in the Department of Transportation under Reagan and was as a deputy regional representative for the Department of Labor under President George H. W. Bush.
Jacobson has not yet filed the paperwork to run, but a potential campaign website with filler text went live last Friday, taking swipes at Cruz and promising an announcement this week.
That text was later replaced to say the website did not count as an official announcement. It was was still active as of Monday afternoon, allowing viewers to sign up for campaign news.
Neither Jacobson nor Texans for Texas responded to a request for comment.
Each has laid out a plan for attacking Cruz that centers on the incumbent’s absence from the state during the 2016 presidential campaign. Jacobson told the Star-Telegram last month that he was tired of elected officials “using one political office to further another ambition.”
Cruz’s office has aggressively highlighted time spent in the state this year, notably his work on Hurricane Harvey relief. And Cruz raised the majority of his traceable campaign donations from Texas this year.
Cruz has also worked to make inroads with the state’s establishment Republicans. Cruz defeated the establishment choice, then Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, in the 2012 GOP Senate primary.
Last month Cruz spoke to the establishment-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington about his work on one of its top priorities this year, protecting the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Texas Association of Business President Chris Wallace praised Cruz for his position, saying that while they’ve had “differences in the past,” the senator has been “out front” on the group’s biggest issue.
Cruz has also reached out to another group of Republicans he disagreed with in the past: President Donald Trump’s supporters.
After heated disagreements with Trump during the presidential primary campaign in 2016, Cruz infuriated some of them by telling delegates to “vote your conscience” at the Republican National Convention
Cruz dined at the White House with Trump in March, and later drew praise from former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon, who told Fox News's Sean Hannity in October that he wanted to find a primary challenger for every incumbent Republican senator except Cruz.
“Trump supporters are behind Cruz,” said Hal Lambert, a Fort Worth money manager and top Texas GOP fundraiser. Lambert helped with Cruz’s presidential campaign, but later threw his support behind Trump once he became the GOP nominee.
Lambert praised Cruz for being a team player in the Senate since Trump took office, and for supporting Trump when an Access Hollywood video emerged showing the candidate making lewd comments about women.
“Ted ultimately supported Trump and also stuck with him,” said Lambert. “There [are] people in leadership in Congress right now that as soon as that video came out disowned supporting President Trump. Cruz didn’t do that.”