Ted Cruz playing GOP kingmaker in Utah special election


Republicans in Utah overwhelmingly chose Ted Cruz in their presidential caucus 17 months ago. This week, the Texas senator will find out how much political influence he still has among them.

Cruz endorsed and campaigned on behalf of Republican Chris Herrod, his presidential campaign coordinator who is on the ballot for a special House election. Herrod is competing in a three-way primary for the race to replace former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

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Republican candidate Chris Herrod Rick Bowmer AP

Herrod began the race as an underdog, but in the final weeks — with the help of significant outside advertising — he has closed in on the frontrunner, Provo Mayor John Curtis. That primary, a higher-profile contest than the general election in bright red Utah, takes place Tuesday night (although the winner may not be determined until later in the week.)

“Senator Cruz did very well in Utah and remains very popular there,” said one Cruz ally who has been monitoring the special election. “Herrod had no name ID at all, Curtis started with an enormous lead… so the fact that he’s even in the game is pretty remarkable.”

Aside from Cruz, Herrod has also gotten help from the conservative Club for Growth, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Curtis on his behalf. He also received an endorsement from another 2016 presidential hopeful, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

But if Herrod succeeds, the Cruz ally said, “It sends a strong message that if you’re wanting an endorsement in a Republican primary, that the person you want to get it from is Ted Cruz.”

The Club for Growth backed Herrod after Cruz’s endorsement, and spokeswoman Rachael Slobodien, who formerly worked for Cruz, said that while the two endorsements were made independently, the senator is “truly the leader of the conservative movement.”

The Utah race comes as other GOP leaders’ political might is also being put to the test this week, in a special election in Alabama.

President Trump made a last-minute endorsement in that race for Sen. Luther Strange, who faces a surprisingly close primary to keep the seat he was appointed to last February. Strange has also benefited from millions of dollars in advertising by a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. While Strange is expected to win the race in a September primary runoff, he currently polls behind one GOP opponent and narrowly ahead of another — troubling signs for both McConnell’s and Trump’s political camps.

Herrod’s race has hints of Trump influence too. While Herrod led Cruz’s campaign in the caucus, he and another GOP hopeful, Tanner Ainge, say they ultimately voted for Trump in November. Curtis, who is considered the most moderate of the group, says he didn’t vote for anyone in the presidential contest — something his opponents have attacked him for.

Back in Texas, Cruz’s engagement in political king-making hasn’t gone unnoticed by opponents. Though Cruz met with constituents on a tour through east Texas earlier this month, and has more events planned before the end of August recess, his Democratic opponent was quick use the campaign event in Utah as evidence the senator has put his political ambitions over his current job.

“While I’m traveling Texas all this week spending time with Texans, he’s in Utah supporting some candidate running for office there,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke said in an interview last week. “He’s building a national base; I’m working with Texans.”

O’Rourke, who represents El Paso, has also been venturing out of his territory over Congress’s August break. The House left Washington earlier than the Senate, and O’Rourke has used the time to host campaign-style “town halls” across the state, including a swing through Fort Worth last Friday night.

And while Cruz has helped Herrod with emails to his national fundraising list, the senator’s own fundraising has been less than stellar. Despite sitting on a formidable $5 million for his reelection, he raised just $1.1 million in the second quarter of 2017 — about $500,000 less than O’Rourke.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch