Politics & Policy

Convention Speech Sparks Blowback from Cruz Donors

Cruz on stage in Cleveland, July 20, 2016. (Mark Kauslarich/Reuters)
The Texas senator is working behind the scenes to quell the turmoil stirred up by his remarks in Cleveland.

Ted Cruz’s next presidential campaign is off to a rocky start.

The 2016 Republican runner-up, who has made little effort to mask his intention to run again in 2020, believed he was standing on principle — and protecting and promoting his brand — when he refused to endorse Donald Trump in his July 20 address to the GOP convention.

Instead, Cruz’s remarks provoked backlash not only from delegates in Cleveland but also from allies in the conservative movement and top-dollar donors to his campaign. In the week and a half since his speech, some of Cruz’s longtime supporters have excoriated him both in private and in public, blowback that has far exceeded what Cruz and his team anticipated.

Unnerved by the scope of the fallout, Cruz is attempting to defuse tensions behind the scenes. He and his lieutenants are confident that the controversy will die down and believe that Trump’s every misstep between now and November will validate Cruz’s decision to withhold his support. They also realize, though, that his run in 2020 — not to mention his Senate reelection in 2018 — will be immeasurably more difficult without the support of the financial and grassroots networks he cultivated in 2016, significant portions of which he has angered with his recent actions.

With that in mind, Cruz convened a conference call with donors to his presidential campaign the weekend after his speech and worked to clarify his remarks, which were widely interpreted as a public rebuke of Trump. According to a participant on the call, Cruz told donors that he didn’t anticipate the intensity of the audience’s response; nor did he intend to signal his alliance with or allegiance to the so-called Never Trump movement, which has worked to recruit a third-party presidential candidate.

RELATED: Lion Ted

The senator’s top donors were crucial during the primary’s opening phase in amassing the funds — both for the campaign and the super PAC — needed to convince skeptics of his viability as a serious presidential candidate. But some of his high-profile benefactors, hell-bent on keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House, are now livid at what they perceive as a betrayal of the pledge he made last year to support the Republican nominee.

“I was utterly shocked. He gave a world-class speech, and had he stopped seven-eighths of the way through, nobody would doubt he’d be the nominee in 2020 or 2024,” says one person who was among Cruz’s biggest donors and bundlers. “Instead he goes and says, ‘Vote your conscience,’ which everyone knows meant, ‘F Trump.’”

The donor, who requested anonymity to preserve his relationship with the senator, says many of Cruz’s financial backers share his sentiments. “I haven’t talked to any of the seven-figure donors to the super PAC who are happy — this is not good,” he says. “I think he’s — I think this is not going to be easy to get over.” 

He estimates that Cruz alienated “about 50 percent of his supporters” with the move, then he corrects himself. “I’m really just saying 50 percent because I’m his friend. I haven’t heard a single person be positive, actually.” The donor refuses to speculate about how many of his peers might stop giving to Cruz and says that personally he will continue donating because of their friendship. He adds, however, that Cruz’s decision upset him so much that he will no longer raise money on his behalf.

RELATED: The Charge of the Cruz Brigade

The negativity is by no means universal. Stephen Cox, a Houston-based bundler for Cruz, notes that the feedback he’s received has been mostly positive. Among those upset by the speech, “almost everyone is willing to talk and listen about what happened and what this means for the future,” he says. “There isn’t a single donor in my network who I would write off because of this. In fact, I’ve had donors say, ‘I was disappointed. I thought he should endorse. I’m for Trump. But if Ted runs in 2020, he’s still my guy.’”

Nonetheless, the complaints from Cruz’s financial backers have become increasingly public: The New York hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, both intensely private people, were so infuriated that they went to the New York Times and upbraided Cruz in a lengthy statement, expressing “disappointment” that he “chose to disregard” his pledge to support the nominee. Their remarks sent shock waves through the GOP donor universe.

“Think about it: This is a family that never, ever, ever, ever speaks to the press,” says the first donor. “They’ve probably fielded a thousand press inquiries in the last two years and never spoke out. And now they finally decide to speak out to the press. What’s the topic? Ted Cruz, saying, ‘We thought he was a man of his word.’”

The conservative movement, whose national leaders largely coalesced behind Cruz during the primary season, was fractured by his convention speech.

The turmoil extends beyond Cruz’s donor base. The conservative movement, whose national leaders largely coalesced behind Cruz during the primary season, was fractured by his convention speech. Many influential activists inundated Cruz’s team with criticism in the days that followed. The senator himself has fielded some of these angry communiqués, while asking allies who support his stance to help him calm the uproar and keep it from boiling over into public.

In some cases, though, it’s already too late. Richard Viguerie, the longtime conservative activist who endorsed Cruz early and worked the grassroots on behalf of his campaign, published a blistering takedown on his website, conservativeHQ.com, that left Cruz allies stunned and movement leaders buzzing in the days following the convention.

“Instead of embracing the Biblical principles of forgiveness and love in the face of hate Cruz engaged in a bit of too clever by half word play,” Viguerie wrote. “In the eyes of most conservatives with whom I spoke, Ted Cruz became just another self-centered politician who walked back on a promise, failed to live up to his own Biblical standards and, when the battle raged the fiercest, put his own petty hurts before the future of his country and the conservative cause.”

Viguerie’s post also included seven comments from various “prominent conservatives” whose rebukes ranged from “Cruz wasn’t driven by principle, but by ego” to “Ted Cruz made the worst mistake of his political career. Millions of us will never forget or forgive his betrayal.” These critiques echoed throughout recent conversations with activists who worked to elect Cruz and who believed his argument that Hillary Clinton would inexorably alter the course of the country with Supreme Court appointments alone. They felt certain that Cruz, having laid out the stakes of a liberal majority on the court, would set aside personal feuding and support the GOP ticket.

RELATED: In a Party Filled with Cowards, Cruz Stood Apart

Many of these supporters celebrated with Cruz the Friday before the convention began, when the Texas senator came to Cleveland to address a private gathering of several hundred conservative leaders. Over the weekend, as word spread that Cruz would not endorse Trump, tension began to build.

Several of Cruz’s prominent allies — including Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, whose endorsement Cruz had spent two years courting — caught wind of his thinking and urged him to reconsider, according to sources familiar with the discussions. They feared that he would weaken the Republican nominee heading into the general election and damage his own presidential prospects in the process.

Cruz received similar warnings from members of his team. While an explicit endorsement was out of the question, his advisers and confidants were bitterly divided over whether he should announce that he planned to vote for Trump in November: His campaign manager Jeff Roe and his longtime best friend David Panton were in favor, according to a source familiar with the internal debate, while finance chairman Willie Langston, campaign chairman Chad Sweet, and chief strategist Jason Johnson were against.

#share#After a face-to-face meeting in early July between Cruz, Roe, Trump, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, both the Trump team and the RNC emerged with the understanding that Cruz would speak at the convention and promote party unity. Cruz and his team, meanwhile, didn’t believe the meeting had established any guidelines whatsoever for the senator’s remarks.

Regardless, Cruz’s team argues that he did what most Republicans expected of him. “His speech laid out a path to unity and a path to winning in November — by vigorously defending freedom and the Constitution,” says Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. “Senator Cruz is ‘never Hillary’; he hopes that every Republican, up and down the ticket, will unite in defense of liberty to avert the disaster that Hillary Clinton would be for America.”

RELATED: Ted Cruz Isn’t Changing a Thing

Cruz, who studied carefully Ronald Reagan’s non-endorsement of Gerald Ford at the 1976 convention, never had interest in offering a token show of support for Trump. Not only had the real-estate mogul insulted his wife and father; Trump, if he were elected could be an opponent in 2020 as the GOP’s incumbent president.

Still, Cruz understood the risk of sounding like a spoiler at the nominee’s own party. Torn in different directions, he arrived in Cleveland with several drafts of his speech, still searching for the words that could help him thread the needle and look simultaneously like a team player and a principled conservative. But the ones he finally settled on — “Don’t say home in November,” followed by “Vote your conscience” — didn’t go over well with a significant chunk of Cruz’s target audience.

“Inside the conservative movement it’s about a 70–30 split, with 70 percent feeling frustrated and disappointed,” says Ken Blackwell, a board member of the National Rifle Association and the Club for Growth who supported Cruz in the primary. “He could have accomplished what he needed to accomplish in another way. The way he did it, he looked like a party pooper. He would have been better to take the Kasich route and not show up.”

RELATED: I Choose Ted

Cruz and his aides expected jeers inside the convention hall — Manafort and his team were whipping opposition on the floor, after all — but not the thunderous, cascading boos that showered down on Cruz as he left the stage. And they certainly weren’t anticipating the antagonistic response from the senator’s ideological allies.

Their sluggish response reflected their surprise: One supporter noted that nobody on the senator’s team appeared on television making Cruz’s case in the 24 hours after the incident. Cruz did, however, speak at the Texas delegation’s breakfast the next morning, and cable news went live as he spent 30 minutes fielding questions and critiques from his home-state audience. Roe, chatting with a crowd of reporters on the side, joked that nobody would have blamed Cruz for coming down with a cold and skipping the event.

It wasn’t just a handful of Texas delegates questioning Cruz’s judgment; some of his staunchest supporters in Cleveland were openly doing the same.

“I’m a friend of Ted’s, and a great admirer, which added to a great sense of disappointment with his lack of an endorsement,” Gary Bauer, the longtime Evangelical leader and 2000 presidential candidate, said Thursday evening before Trump formally accepted the nomination. “I hope he has time to think and pray and come to a different conclusion before November. It’s the best thing for the country and the party — and for him.”

The response from conservative activists has not been monolithic, and there are those who have cheered Cruz’s decision to withhold his endorsement. Blogger and radio host Erick Erickson, who derisively refers to Trump as “Cheeto Jesus,” wrote just hours after Cruz delivered his speech that the senator “will be remembered fondly by history for standing up for conviction and principle and defying Cheeto Jesus and his merry lynch mob of alt-right unprincipled racists and whores who have taken over the GOP.”

Having drawn his line in the sand…there’s no chance Cruz will change course and endorse Trump.

Cruz’s lieutenants believe very much the same — that no irreparable damage has been done to his brand and that his estranged supporters will come home six months or a year from now (and certainly well before the 2020 cycle.) But that view does not fully factor in any potential fallout from the general-election result; some, like Bauer, believe that Cruz is now “hostage to Hillary Clinton” in November. “If she wins, there will be folks that argue he contributed to that outcome,” Bauer says.

People close to Cruz and his team say he understands that criticism. But having drawn his line in the sand, they say, there’s no chance he will change course and endorse Trump.

“It’s not going to happen — Ted Cruz has built a reputation on standing his ground,” says Rick Tyler, who served as national spokesman for the campaign until his dismissal in late February. “If he endorsed now, it would look worse.”

Indeed, Cruz is essentially boxed in, fueling the belief among key supporters that Trump has outsmarted him at every step of the campaign — and did so once again in Cleveland. Trump said publicly that he read Cruz’s remarks beforehand but let him speak nonetheless; Cruz also called Trump several days before his speech and told him an endorsement wasn’t coming, according to two sources, and Trump registered no complaint.

“Trump and Manafort said, ‘If Cruz wants to hang himself, that takes care of one of our problems for 2020,’” says the Cruz donor. “And Jeff Roe would have done the same thing if the roles were reversed.”

#related#Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump may have looked especially odd given that the Texas senator lavished praise on his rival and refused to utter a negative word about him until mid January, when Trump overtook him in the Iowa polls and threatened to snuff out his campaign. When Cruz finally attacked, Trump branded him “Lyin’ Ted” — a sly reversal of Cruz’s own campaign slogan, “TrusTED” — and proceeded to swipe the senator’s tea- party base out from underneath him.

After a prolonged primary battle that turned ugly and intensely personal, Cruz’s final move was meant to position him for the future. It could prove to be a stroke of genius. As of now, however, it has backfired: Some of Cruz’s biggest supporters could be gone for good. Others will remain loyal but fear his presidential dreams are dead. And a vocal few are warning about 2018, citing rumors that Cruz’s speech has motivated Republicans, particularly in Texas’s business community, to recruit a serious primary challenger.

If Cruz was looking for a head start on his next presidential campaign, this wasn’t it. “Forget about 2020,” says the top donor. “It’s a pipe dream now.” 

— Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor. Tim Alberta is National Review’s chief political correspondent.

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