When Ted Cruz ran for Senate in 2012, he did so with the help of a conservative grassroots movement fueled by small-dollar donors eager to oppose the president at every turn.
This time around, Cruz says it’s his Democratic opponent who is benefiting from the energy of a burgeoning political movement — while his own campaign seeks help from GOP allies with ties to the party establishment’s money.
National Republicans are still raising plenty of money for their efforts to hold House and Senate majorities this fall — an effort that now includes the incumbent Cruz.
But GOP Senate operatives say the decline of some of the small-dollar groups that helped first elect Cruz — many of which have struggled to find footing under the new president — underline the senator’s challenge in a tougher-than-expected race against Democrat Beto O’Rourke.
This week Cruz skipped Senate votes in Washington in an effort to re-energize part of that base, without whom he told supporters Republicans could be overwhelmed this fall.
“There’s no doubt that anger is a powerful political motivator,” Cruz said of the state’s changing political energy in an interview with the Star-Telegram this week. “Even though they have divisions amongst themselves, the hatred of President Trump is unifying many on the left.”
“On the right, our danger is complacency,” added Cruz, who rode the tea party wave to an upset primary victory over then-sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in 2012. “That commonsense conservatives … may not feel quite the same urgency as those who are angry and screaming in the streets.”
Despite raising nearly $90 million for a GOP presidential bid in 2015, Cruz told a gathering of Republicans in North Texas this week that his campaign had not raised enough money to match O’Rourke’s ads on TV.
“We’re seeing the airwaves flooded [with O’Rourke’s TV ads],” Cruz told the rally in The Colony, Texas. “We’ve got to save our resources to turn out and mobilize conservatives.”
Of the groups that worked to help Cruz do that in his first race, FreedomWorks (which raised more than $23 million during that election cycle and spent roughly $500,000 helping Cruz) reported $117,000 on hand as of June 30.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, which raised roughly $16 million in the 2012 election cycle, has brought in about $4 million in the 2018 cycle. The Tea Party Express reported $0 raised in the 2018 election cycle, according to reports with the Federal Election Commission.
“All of the grassroots enthusiasm that drove tea party fundraising spends all of its time supporting Trump on Twitter,” said one national GOP Senate operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
“There so much focus on Trump, it’s really sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the small-dollar enthusiasm.”
One group that shelled out big for Cruz in 2012, the conservative Club for Growth, this week announced plans to invest seven figures from its super PAC in his re-election.
Like Cruz, that group attacked Trump during the 2015 presidential primary, before changing course and supporting him. Leaders said Wednesday its bundled contributions were roughly on par with the 2012 cycle at this point: $3.7 compared to $4.5 million in 2012.
“The issue set has changed, under [President] Obama it was the tea party issues ... smaller government, less spending, debt,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh told the Star-Telegram Wednesday. “It shifted in the 2016 cycle to immigration and trade, to some extent, among the grassroots base.”
The Club doesn’t engage on immigration issues. Its campaign ads in Texas congressional races this year cycle have focused primarily on critiquing candidates over their loyalty to Trump.
“My sense is the grassroots and the donors get were sort of lulled into thinking we don’t need to engage,” McIntosh said of Cruz’s re-election race. “As I talk to them about what we’ve seen following the polls, the universal answer I get is, ‘well, tell me what you need.’”
Other Republicans with closer ties to the party’s establishment haven’t had trouble raising money.
White House officials this month bragged to reporters on a call conference call that Trump has helped the Republican National Committee raise $250 million this election cycle — a reality Cruz has embraced, inviting the president to campaign with him in Texas.
Headed into a race that’s crucial to holding the GOP’s Senate majority, party leaders say Cruz will have their help if needed.
A super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to look at data on the race in the coming weeks, and will engage on Cruz’s behalf if necessary, the group’s spokesman Chris Pack told the Star-Telegram Wednesday.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a top GOP fundraiser who has been helping candidates in other states, told the Star-Telegram Wednesday he’s now planning a fundraising event for Cruz.
“I’m going to be doing everything I can to help Sen. Cruz get re-elected,” said Cornyn, who twice chaired the Senate’s GOP campaign arm. “If national money starts coming into Texas, that’s going to draw money from other races across the country, and I think that should be a concern to everybody.”