Politics & Policy

Cruz Shakes Up Senate Office, Expands Political Operation

(Rainier Ehrhardt/Reuters)
Two new nonprofits and staff changes are designed to strengthen the Cruz machine for another run.

Ted Cruz has been conspicuously silent since his return to Capitol Hill from the campaign trail, but the gears, as always, are turning. Behind closed doors Cruz has been supervising the vast expansion of his electoral enterprise, integrating the operations of his campaign team — policy, political, financial — in an effort to harness his newfound national following with an eye on 2020.

Central to these plans is the creation of two new affiliated nonprofits, their names to be announced in the coming days, which will effectively keep Cruz’s political machinery humming over the next four years. These groups, one a 501(c)3 and the other a 501(c)4, will be responsible for everything from championing Cruz’s legislative priorities to maintaining his donor database and coordinating his early-state travel. They will be an outgrowth of Cruz’s existing campaign apparatus, the nucleus of which has remained active in the aftermath of his departure from the race on May 3.

These developments have scrambled the pecking order inside the senator’s orbit. Cruz staffers learned Wednesday morning that David Polyansky — a political strategist who was senior adviser to the presidential campaign — will become chief of staff in Cruz’s Senate office, replacing Paul Teller, who will be departing to serve as senior adviser to the nonprofit groups. Mark Campbell, the national political director of Cruz’s presidential campaign, will serve as executive director and board chairman of the organizations.

Bryan English, who served as Cruz’s Iowa-state director, and Brian Phillips, who ran the campaign’s rapid-response communications from Houston, will also join the allied groups, which Campbell says are intended to build on the movement inspired by the Cruz campaign, educating and mobilizing “grassroots leaders as to the importance of conservative principles.” The new operation will launch with roughly half a dozen staffers working remotely, though Cruz officials expect eventually to have offices in Washington and Texas. With the exception of Teller, who will join from Cruz’s Senate office, the organizations’ staffers will consist entirely of aides from the senator’s presidential campaign.

The moves send a clear signal, if there was any doubt, that Cruz, the runner-up for this year’s Republican nomination, is preparing for another run in 2020. Polyansky, an attorney and former Marine, has extensive experience in electoral politics and none on Capitol Hill. Indeed, his only legislative stint came in the 1990s, when he served as chief of staff for the late at-large Houston city councilman Joe Roach. Polyansky says he objects to “the mindset of Washington that you have to work on the Hill or have 25 years of legislative experience.” He believes his time working on campaigns across the country — and living in Texas, among Cruz’s constituents — gives him a “unique” understanding of how people view government beyond the beltway. “Hopefully, I bring a little more to the table than just a political background,” he says.

Polyansky’s installation in Washington — at the expense of Teller, an ideological purist and policy aficionado — signals a shift toward a more politically sensitive legislative approach that some Cruz allies have noticed since his return to the Senate. As a Texas-based strategist with deep experience in Iowa politics, Polyansky straddles two geographical areas of deep interest to the senator, a native Texan who earlier this year made a strong and successful play to win the Iowa caucuses.

The moves send a clear signal, if there was any doubt, that Cruz, the runner-up for this year’s Republican nomination, is preparing for another run in 2020.

Though Cruz’s top officials have been plotting this reconfiguration since his exit from the race in May, plans accelerated in recent weeks with Cruz asking Polyansky to come aboard and Teller agreeing to join Campbell at the new nonprofits. Polyansky, who lives in Houston with his wife and two young children, says the opportunity “wasn’t something that was really on my radar” but that he accepted without hesitation. He will keep his family in Texas but work primarily from Washington.

Before joining the Cruz campaign, Polyansky served as a senior strategist for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in Iowa, where Walker led the polls for months before his campaign imploded last summer. He also served as the lead strategist on Joni Ernst’s 2014 Senate campaign and advised Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, when he helped lead the former Arkansas governor to a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses.

Equally intriguing is the reassignment of Teller, who is both a longtime Hill staffer and fixture of Washington’s conservative movement. As Cruz’s chief of staff, Teller used his wealth of connections to help the freshman senator build alliances with D.C.’s most prominent conservative actors and institutions — duties he will continue from his perch in the new-look political operation.

Cruz, who has been a controversial figure since he joined Congress, gave the equivalent of the middle finger to the Republican establishment when he hired Teller in January 2014. As the executive director of the conservative Republican Study Committee — a caucus of some 170 House Republicans — Teller had enraged members of the GOP leadership by rallying outside advocacy groups against legislation backed by Speaker John Boehner’s office. When he worked to organize opposition to a budget deal at the end of 2013, then-RSC director Steve Scalise fired him — and within a month, Cruz hired him as his deputy chief of staff.

Campbell and Teller, who communicated regularly throughout the campaign to coordinate schedules and strategy, will be the yin and yang of Cruz’s new enterprise. Campbell earned a doctoral degree in higher-education management and has considerable executive experience, including 30 years running his own consulting firm. He will handle the complex administrative duties that come with running a nonprofit. Teller, on the other hand, has a Ph.D. in political science and is one of Washington’s best-connected activists. After spending 25 years inside the conservative movement, he will leverage his deep rolodex to position Cruz at the forefront of the issues galvanizing the grassroots.

In Cruz’s Senate office, a transition is already under way. Polyansky expects to start in the next two weeks. 

— Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review. Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.

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