Politics & Policy

How Ted Cruz Has Wooed Some of the GOP’s Top Donors

(Scott Olson/Getty)

He’s been in the race for only two months, but Jeb Bush has already spent more than $275,000 on private air travel. Nearly $350,000 has gone to FP1 Strategies, the firm that houses Bush’s campaign manager, Danny Diaz, and another consultant, and which is performing other services for the former Florida governor, according to Wall Street Journal. While most presidential candidates and their staffers spend years on the campaign trail living out of suitcases in two-star hotels, the Bush team on one occasion shelled out for a stay at the Mandarin Oriental in Miami. The Bush campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Bush is by no means alone. Even Rick Perry’s struggling campaign, which has stopped paying its staffers, found the money in June to spend nearly $60,000 on private air travel. Perry’s campaign manager, Jeff Miller, says the charter jet flew military veterans supporting the governor, including Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, on an introductory campaign swing through Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Miller’s consulting firm, Abstract Communications, has also netted $391,000, more than half of all the money spent by the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings. Miller says that money was for consulting services and for video production, fundraising, and Web development, among other services.  

Then there’s Ted Cruz, who has told would-be donors that this is precisely the sort of wasteful spending he will not indulge in. He has promised, says a source, not to “run a traditional campaign with a bunch of D.C. consultants who are fleecing donors out of their money.” It’s a key part of Cruz’s pitch to top-dollar donors, a handful of whom have committed millions of dollars to a cluster of super PACs supporting the Texas senator’s campaign, making him an unexpectedly potent force in the Republican primary.

Cruz’s emergence as one of the most prolific fundraisers in the Republican field is one of the biggest surprises of this election season.

Indeed, Cruz’s emergence as one of the most prolific fundraisers in the Republican field is one of the biggest surprises of this election season. Kellyanne Conway, the Republican strategist and pollster running the super PACs supporting Cruz’s campaign, says she senses a change among donors this campaign season. “People are not talking about electability,” she says. “This cycle is different.” Perhaps she’s right: Cruz has raised more hard dollars than any of his competitors, and the Cruz-aligned super PACs have out-raised all others except the one backing Bush.

So-called traditional campaigns, such as Mitt Romney’s in 2012, usually pay big fees to consulting firms affiliated with the candidate’s top aides. The firms in turn provide a host of services to the campaign, from advertising and media production to communications strategy and polling.

RELATED: With Mega-Donor’s Technology, Cruz Campaign Promises to Turn Out More GOP Voters than Ever Before

Whether such firms are the most qualified to provide those services is a matter of debate. Many Republican donors still have bitter memories of Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 campaign, which was criticized in some corners for shelling out millions of dollars in consulting fees to several of the governor’s top aides. The best and brightest weren’t brought on, critics said. Instead, a type of Washington self-dealing reigned supreme, with campaign aides doling out business to themselves — and it may have cost Republicans a presidential election.

“They ran a 20th-century campaign in the 21st century,” a Romney bundler told Politico the day after the election. “The anger is that they were entrusted to do certain things. It’s not like they were paid a $5,000 retainer to get a few dozen articles in an inside-the-Beltway paper. This is the major leagues.”

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Cruz may not have convinced many top-dollar donors with his pledge to do things differently, but his supporters have certainly shown deep commitment, at least financially: New York hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer has donated $11 million to the super PACs backing Cruz, and campaign associates say he is ready to give more; Houston-based private-equity analyst Toby Neugebauer has given $10 million; and the fracking titans Farris and Dan Wilks have together put in $15 million. By comparison, Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Bush’s candidacy, hadn’t accepted a donation larger than $3 million as of last month, according to FEC filings.

That means Bush has more room to grow by soliciting the sort of eight-figure donations Cruz has already cashed in on. But Cruz confidants say his supporters, particularly Mercer, are primed to give more if the senator is successful in some of the early-primary contests. “I think it’s pretty clear that if the Mercers like what they see, they’re going to increase their investment,” says a Cruz adviser. “You don’t invest all your time, energy, and money if you’re sort of, kind of, in. They’re really in.”

Cruz has sold donors on precisely the behavior that has turned off so many Washington insiders: his willingness to obstruct, grandstand, and point fingers.

Cruz has also sold donors on precisely the behavior that has turned off so many Washington insiders: his willingness to obstruct, grandstand, and point fingers. Ticking through his Republican challengers, says Conway, the senator reminds donors that “everybody else has disappointed you in one way or another.” Marco Rubio buckled on immigration. Scott Walker went soft on abortion. Jeb Bush sinned on Common Core. “You need a conservative president who won’t betray you,” Conway says, paraphrasing Cruz.

The senator also points to his willingness “to stand in a crowd of a few or even a crowd of one when it comes to executing the promises we all make to get to Washington,” Conway says. When it came time to stand against the “final funding” of Obamacare, she notes, “there was only one person who stood on his feet for 21 hours.” This, of course, is a reference to the marathon speech Cruz mounted in an attempt to prevent funds from flowing to the health-care law. In the wake of this speech, Cruz became associated with the government shutdown that followed. “The grassroots love me,” he says, in Conway’s telling. “It’s the same reason the Washington establishment doesn’t care for me.”

As a first-term senator — Cruz was elected in 2012 — he has sought to allay concerns among donors about whether he has the requisite experience to be president. He’s talked about his years serving as solicitor general of Texas and claimed credit for victories on a number of important conservative issues: successfully defending the constitutionality of Texas’s Ten Commandments monument and of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Second Amendment’s applicability to federal property in District of Columbia v. Heller.

#related#Cruz has also tapped into a frustration among donors that millions of voters who might’ve been willing to support Republicans stayed home the past two presidential elections. He says he’s uniquely positioned to turn out a massive Evangelical electorate — as many as 100 million voters, according to one GOP strategist who has heard his pitch — that has gone largely untapped in recent elections. Some pollsters and election analysts dispute the existence of this sleeper group. Sean Trende, the co-author of the 2014 edition of the Almanac of American Politics and an elections analyst at Real Clear Politics has said that there were about 6 million fewer white voters in 2008 and 2012 than in previous years, and that those voters were not conservative Evangelicals, per se, but the sort of blue-collar Rust Belt voters who defected to Ross Perot in 1992.

Cruz may not be right, but he has a theory. And, for the party’s top donors, who hear pleas from all corners, “it’s more than some of these other candidates have for a path to victory,” says a GOP strategist familiar with Cruz’s pitch.

As for those dreaded consultants the senator so often maligns, he’s not beyond their reach. The Cruz campaign has paid Axiom Strategies, the consulting firm owned by Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, about $30,000 a month. A spokesman for the campaign says that fee covers Roe’s salary as well as those of three other campaign staffers. J2 Strategic Communications, the firm established by Cruz’s senior adviser, Jason Johnson, is also paid $20,000 a month for campaign work, which a Cruz spokesman says is the closest their operation comes to a traditional campaign-consultant relationship.

One of Roe’s former clients was former Texas lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, the establishment candidate defeated in a 2012 Senate bid by political upstart Ted Cruz. That’s how quickly friends of the Republican establishment can become foes, and vice versa. Now, Cruz is hoping for a similar transformation if he manages to make his renegade brand that of the Republican standard-bearer.

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