Politics & Policy

Has the Cruz Campaign Alienated Endorsement Target Tim Huelskamp?

Huelskamp on Capitol Hill, October 21, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

On November 18, as Ted Cruz pitched his candidacy to select congressional Republicans in the main dining room of the Capitol Hill Club, he faced an uncomfortable question from Representative Paul Gosar. Why, Gosar asked, was the consulting firm owned by Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, working to unseat fellow Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp, a congressman the Cruz campaign is trying to woo?

Axiom Strategies, the Kansas City consulting firm founded by Roe, has long been involved with super PACs seeking to oust Huelskamp from his seat in Kansas’s first district. In 2014, Axiom consulted for the “Now or Never” super PAC, which went to great lengths to paint Huelskamp as an unlikeable, ineffective leader. This cycle, Huelskamp is more vulnerable than ever — he has the same weaknesses, and the forces trying to oust him are more organized. Some are wondering if Axiom will double down on its efforts to defeat him.

On that Wednesday at the Capitol Hill Club, according to a source inside the room, Gosar paused the table’s discussion of political strategy to confront Roe directly about Axiom’s actions, asking why he was helping run a super PAC hell-bent on unseating a “good conservative.” Huelskamp had already left the room by then, but his staff stayed behind. “It seemed clear to everyone that the question was planted by Huelskamp,” the source says. “And for Roe and Cruz, the question didn’t seem unexpected.”

The source says that Roe didn’t miss a beat. “Jeff’s response was definitive. He said he had picked up with his family and moved to Houston and was ‘100 percent’ full-time with Ted Cruz. He made clear that he has no active involvement in Axiom anymore — he’s the Cruz campaign manager and nothing else.”

Cruz chimed in with a lighthearted note. “Cruz said, ‘Jeff doesn’t sleep — he’s 24/7 on my campaign. There’s nothing else to Jeff Roe.’”

A congressman in the room confirmed this account.

Huelskamp, whose office had not responded as of press time, could be a valuable ally for Cruz as he works to consolidate support from the conservative flank of the Republican party. Part of Cruz’s pitch to voters is that while he works in Washington, D.C., he remains an outsider. Support from Huelskamp and other members of the Freedom Caucus, a group that has publicly butted heads with Republican leadership and claims some credit for Speaker John Boehner’s resignation earlier this year, would bolster that portrayal.

#share#But according to multiple sources, tensions have simmered between Cruz and Huelskamp ever since the Texas senator enlisted Roe to run his presidential campaign. Cruz endorsed Huelskamp in his 2014 congressional bid, leading Huelskamp to consider him an ally — until Cruz joined forces with his most prominent foe.

‘​Huelskamp’s first response was, “This is the guy who came after me, and you still want me to support you?” ’

“It shocked the whole Huelskamp world,” says one source. “Huelskamp’s first response was, ‘This is the guy who came after me, and you still want me to support you?’ It’s awkward. Huelskamp’s people don’t know what to do.”

“What Roe said is true,” the source adds. “He is in Houston 24/7. He isn’t really involved — that is technically true. But Axiom is still very much involved in this race. They’re spending the money. They’re doing the work. And Roe is obviously still the owner.”

Indeed, one Axiom employee confirms that the company has had a hand in attempts to unseat Huelskamp in the past, and that the appetite is there for another go-round. “I’ve had the same folks interested in helping get Huelskamp out,” the source says. “When you get a taste for blood, there’s an appetite to do something similar. We haven’t had any involvement officially yet for 2016, but the demand is there, and there are lots of people who want to see him go.”

Roe himself flatly denies that’s the case. “None of my companies will have any roles in this race whatsoever,” he says. “I have a singular mission and focus. There’s no appetite for that. Mr. Huelskamp would be a valued member of our team.”

Though he represents a safe Republican district, Huelskamp is vulnerable. His stance against the renewable-fuel standard has angered some of the powerful agricultural interest groups in the large, rural district, and their displeasure only grew after he was kicked off the Agriculture Committee as the result of a 2012 dispute with leadership.

#related#In 2014, a poorly funded, little-known opponent capitalized on that discontent to give Huelskamp a surprisingly serious primary challenge. This year, the effort to oust Huelskamp is much more organized and deliberate. His Republican opponents have urged OB-GYN Roger Marshall into the race and are working to ensure that conservative support coalesces around him. A concerted effort to capitalize on Huelskamp’s weakness could cost him his seat, so it’s understandable that Roe’s Axiom ties would make him nervous.

The congressman in the room claims the issue was “put to rest” after Roe’s assurance that he would have no involvement in Huelskamp’s race. But, for Huelskamp, whether those words were taken on good faith is less certain.

“There’s no tension, at least from our end,” Roe says. “For Mr. Huelskamp, I’m not sure.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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