Headed into his first re-election, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz now benefits from all the perks of being part of a club he’s made his name railing against.
Despite leading a government shutdown, calling the GOP Senate majority leader a “liar,” and declining to endorse his own party's nominee for president at the 2016 Republican convention, the Texas Republican isn’t remotely worried about threats from his own party in Texas’s March 6 primary.
The two strongest Republicans seeking to unseat Cruz in Texas’s GOP primary are running shoestring campaigns. One is relying on volunteers and family for campaign staff. The other is leaning on help from college friends and Democrats.
In the final days before that race, Cruz is holding few public events in Texas. He spent Congress’ state work week last week railing against ethanol standards in Pennsylvania and speaking to a national conservative conference outside of Washington, D.C. — keeping in close touch with the conservative base he could someday need if he makes another White House bid.
His office reported just one public event last week, a GOP dinner in El Paso Saturday night. The previous weekend, Cruz traveled with Vice President Mike Pence on a Texas fundraising swing and a visit to the Mexican border.
Once the ultimate outsider who in 2012 challenged the establishment’s Senate candidate, Cruz has quickly become a powerful force in both his state and national parties.
He ran a strong campaign for the GOP’s nomination for president in 2016, and has near universal name identification in his home state.
“Texans want a fighter, and when they see Ted Cruz speaking up against those who are not fighting for them, like [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell, that makes Texans very happy,” said State Sen. Konni Burton, who counts herself among Cruz’s earliest supporters in 2012. Cruz’s own polling showed him at 2 percent support among Texas Republicans when he entered that race.
This time Cruz has incumbency perks on his side. Texas Republicans seeking to unseat him describe an uphill quest to find the money or support necessary to take on a now powerful incumbent.
“I have people that whisper in my ear all the time… people who are publicly in a position where they can’t say a lot are high-fiving me under the table [for challenging Cruz],” said Bruce Jacobson, a Christian television executive running in the GOP Senate primary.
Jacobson, who served both the George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan White Houses, is the type of candidate some Republicans hoped would challenge Cruz after the senator’s pivotal role in triggering a partial government shutdown in 2013.
Jacobson, a Christian television executive, agrees with Cruz on most issues, but wants a stylistic change in Texas’s senator. Jacobson’s mother, Pat Jacobson, was a leader in Fort Worth Republican circles, helping turn the county into one of the most reliably red urban strongholds. He has endorsements from some religious leaders in Texas, and a super PAC, Texans for Texas, helping his campaign.
A Texas polling firm conducted a survey in February on behalf of an Austin-based Jacobson supporter. It found the primary heading to a runoff if respondents were read details about Cruz, including his decision not to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention in 2016. Cruz eventually supported Trump, and made fundraising calls on his behalf.
But Jacobson’s campaign and super PAC have raised little money for an expensive statewide race.
His most recent campaign filing listed 25 donors. Seven had the last name Jacobson. A campaign rally in the Fort Worth stockyards Wednesday night drew about 50 people, including many family members and long-time family friends.
The pro-Jacobson PAC reported raising roughly $370,000 as of February 14. It’s running digital ads attacking Cruz for not agreeing to serve out another six-year term, but there are no plans to go on TV ahead of the primary.
Cruz had more than $6 million on hand as of February 14. He also has a supporting super PAC, Texans Are, that reported $1.5 million in the bank at the end of January.
Incumbency has plenty of benefits.
On a campaign swing last week, Pence praised Cruz for his help passing tax reform, saying he and Trump need the Texan back in the Senate.
Hal Lambert, a Fort Worth money manager who advises the pro-Trump PAC America First Policies and supports the pro-Cruz PAC said Cruz was also in good standing with the president’s Super PAC.
Despite Cruz’s feuds with Senate leaders, the Senate’s GOP campaign arm protects all Republican senators from challenges, including those from fellow Republicans. The committee won’t give campaign contracts to firms who work with challengers, making it difficult for those candidates to hire professional campaign staff or raise money.
That strategy has been successful in thwarting primary threats against incumbents in recent years. Since 2014, no GOP incumbent senators have lost a primary challenge.
The closest call came in Mississippi in 2014, when GOP Sen. Thad Cochran won fewer votes than his challenger Chris McDaniel, sending the contest to a runoff. Cruz, at the time, criticized “the conduct of the Washington D.C. machine” for its involvement in the race. Cochran narrowly won the runoff and later easily won re-election.
“It’s a problem,” said Bob Ellsworth, a GOP strategist working for Jacobson through Texans for Texas. “Lots of firms and donors don’t want to upset the establishment apple cart.”
Another national GOP consulting firm, BrabenderCox, was paid by the super PAC last summer, before Texans for Texas has endorsed Jacobson. BrabenderCox is no longer working for Texans for Texas. Neither BrabenderCox nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee responded to requests for comment regarding the firm’s standing with the committee.
Another Cruz primary challenger, Houston energy attorney Stefano de Stefano, said he’s leaned on help from some Democrats and politically active friends from college for his campaign.
“It’s been a lot harder than I expected,” said de Stefano, who has raised about $600,000 for the race. “The guys I know who are in politics and who I know for a fact are disgusted with where the Republican Party is going, I’d have expected them to stand up and they’re not.”
De Stefano did get a check from Mica Mosbacher, a fundraiser for Cruz’s presidential bid who railed against the senator on national television after he declined to endorse Trump at the convention.
Mosbacher has since warmed back up to Cruz and donated to his re-election.