Senator Ted Cruz Still Has a Plan and He's Only 45 Years Old
“How do we keep this going?” Jeff Roe asked his fellow passengers as their car moved through Houston traffic on a Thursday in early May. It was barely 72 hours after Ted Cruz had withdrawn from the presidential race, following his loss in the Indiana primary, and Roe, who had been Cruz's campaign manager, was already nostalgic for a candidacy that had just ended. It was, short of the death of relatives, the most profound loss he had ever suffered. “I didn’t think a single day about what it would be like to lose,” said Roe. “That takes a little bit to set in, and the first thing you think is to not let it end.”
His companions constituted much of the campaign’s high command -- pollster Chris Wilson, communications adviser David Polyansky, and political director Mark Campbell -- and they shared their boss’s desire not to disband. Referring to chief strategist Jason Johnson, Roe recalled saying, “It’s critical we keep J.J., who's been with the boss a long time, and the core of us together if we’re ever going to do a big race.”
Over the last two months, Roe has been uncommonly successful in reversing the typical post-concession staff diaspora, replacing the campaign with a congerie of interlocking entities that will serve the goal of “keeping good quality people in the orbit,” as Polyansky puts it. Cruz has chartered two new nonprofit organizations -- one envisioned to serve as a policy think tank and the other to house his grassroots network -- that will be headed by Campbell. Roe and Wilson are launching their own consulting firm, Reignite, with the expectation of claiming the new Cruz organizations as clients. Next week, Polyansky will become Cruz’s Senate chief of staff, replacing Paul Teller, who will become a senior adviser to the non-profit groups. (National Review first reported their creation, along with the Polyansky and Teller moves, earlier this month.) “I’ve got to go play bureaucrat,” Polyansky said Monday morning as he joined up with Roe and Wilson for a day of meetings in Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention is taking place. “This is my farewell tour.”
For the Cruz organization, the Texas senator's presence at the convention is less a farewell tour than a reintroduction. Roe estimated that Cruz would spend “somewhere north of $100,000” to maintain a presence in Cleveland, which will include a thank-you party Wednesday for his delegates and consummate Wednesday evening in the senator’s speech at the Quicken Loans Arena. Cruz loyalists failed in their grandest efforts to weaken the Republican National Committee -- a rebellion that began in the Rules Committee last week was ultimately quashed by party bosses on the floor Monday -- but in place of controlling the party itself, his advisers have chartered what amounts to a holding company for Cruz’s future political ambitions.
“We’ve been in the middle of a ‘who are we?’ for the last few years, and Donald Trump is a consequence of that rather than a spark for it,” said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union. “After November, regardless of what occurs, we’re going to continue that conversation to see who we are. Senator Cruz wants to accomplish two things: he wants to be next in line for the presidency, and to be a leader for a movement to push the party to the right.”
A senator who had irritated his colleagues with his penchant for stunt-like anti-establishment tactics is now demonstrating an ability to play a patient long game by creating durable counter-establishment of his own. “In Washington, pundits repeatedly intone that we had no plan, no strategy, and no hope of success,” Cruz wrote in the 2015 book A Time for Truth, two years after he forced a government shutdown over Obamacare from which he eventually had to retreat. “I’ve got many personal faults, but, as a former Supreme Court litigator, failing to plan is not one of them.”
Cruz has been almost entirely quiet since the night he ended his campaign. In his return to the Senate he has largely avoided discussion of Trump, whom he still -- like several of his primary rivals -- has yet to endorse. His speech tonight will offer the first indication of Cruz’s thinking about what the world after November will look like. Does someone who thinks of himself as the figurehead of the conservative movement see more danger in associating with Trump or risk in the accusation of having abandoned him?
Already Cruz appears to be treating Trump as a transitory figure in the life of American conservatism. On Friday morning, Cruz snuck into Cleveland to address the Council for National Policy, a secretive group of conservative leaders and donors -- both the contents of the group’s meetings and its roster of members are confidential -- that has been meeting three times annually for a generation, including on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention. For Cruz, it was one of the first opportunities to explain the failure of his well-planned, well-financed, and highly professionalized campaign to defeat an underfunded amateur who seemed be in a state of perpetual improvisation. Cruz said the primary was “not an election decided on policy and issues,” and pointed out that voters, especially older ones, get their information from Fox News, said an attendee who took notes on the speech. Conservatives have to “go around the gate-keepers” to get their message heard, Cruz said, implicitly conflating the right’s dominant news organ with the rest of the mainstream media.
Although only about 150 of the council’s some 400 registered participants were present in the InterContinental Hotel second-floor amphitheater, Cruz spoke to them as though addressing the entirety of the conservative movement, saying they were going to “journey forward together.” But Cruz’s vision of the future seemed to begin after this November. “For people who were listening carefully, there was no doubt what he was doing,” said the attendee. “To give a 26-minute speech and not once mention the need to win this year, that’s a dog that didn’t bark. ...This is all about him."
The general themes of Cruz’s stump speech -- that Republicans win by running as true conservatives, not squishy moderates -- were familiar, but what had changed was the dominant historical analogy. Throughout his year of campaigning for the presidency, Cruz said he was “convinced 2016 is going to be an election very much like 1980,” as he told the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. In that scenario, he was the Ronald Reagan on the cusp of realigning the parties by wooing working-class white swing voters to get behind a candidate who already had the enthusiastic support of ideological conservatives. Yet when he invoked Reagan last week, Cruz had shifted the reference point to four years earlier, when the former California governor was edged out by Gerald Ford at the party’s Kansas City, Missouri, convention. There were “tears when Reagan lost,” Cruz recalled, but the experience “built the foundation for the Reagan revolution.”
Yet there are more ominous analogies to also-rans with ambivalent attitudes toward the Republican nominee. When Barry Goldwater won the nomination in 1964, party fixtures faced a conundrum of whether to embrace a nominee seen as an ideological outlier. The party’s previous nominee, Richard Nixon, endorsed Goldwater and campaigned for him around the country. George Romney, who had lost to Goldwater, continued to attack him as too extreme, battling him over the platform. By 1968, it was the man who had been a total team player who proved best-positioned to win the nomination. “Ted Cruz could be making a big mistake,” said Ed Martin, president of the Eagle Forum. “He’s acting more like George Romney than Richard Nixon right now.”
Like Romney, Cruz allies decided to make their stand on internal party matters that they believe would outlast a single likely-to-be-doomed nominee. Even after Cruz withdrew from the race, his chief delegate-hunter, Ken Cuccinelli, persisted in pushing for changes that he described as weakening the power of party leaders in Washington to the benefit of grassroots activists in the states. “We started with Cruz delegates, but our coalition goes further than that,” said Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general who claims not to be working as an agent of Cruz’s interests. Roe, too, insisted that Cuccinelli’s work was not an official initiative of the Cruz organization. “If we really cared we would have all been here,” Roe said. “If there was a deal to be done we would have done it.”
Cuccinelli found success defending and amending the party’s platform, which now better reflects Cruz’s hardline views on issues of sexual politics than Trump’s disinterest or the studied neglect advocated by most elected officials who see them as unnecessary distractions. “For any of us who are movement conservatives, it’s the gold standard,” said Cuccinelli. “It’s important for the party to continually set that bar, even if we don’t think any Republican will achieve it.”
But others of Cuccinelli's efforts weren't so successful. Proposals to devolve decision-making from party bosses to convention delegates and to ban lobbyists from party posts both failed, as did one to penalize states that allowed independents and Democrats to vote in Republican primaries. (The existing arrangement appeared to have boosted Trump’s candidacy this year at the expense of Cruz’s.) When heavy-handed gaveling on Monday foreclosed any chance of getting a vote on rule changes, Cuccinelli dramatically yanked his credential from his neck and threw it to ground while on national television. “This is a classic establishment-crushing-the-grassroots situation,” he said. “They did it in 2012. How’d that work out?”
As evidence of changing circumstances within the party, the establishment was now Trump, whose delegate-outreach team -- which had been formed to block an effort to depose the presumptive nominee -- ended up partnering with Republican National Committee officials to maintain their centralized power over party business. “There are some RNC rules that have nothing to do with us,” Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, said this week at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast, “rules we didn't particularly care about, but frankly we supported the chair because the chair has been our ally in everything else that we're doing.”
Before closing down Cruz’s Houston headquarters, Roe commissioned one of the campaign’s research staffers to prepare a postmortem report that would help to illuminate what exactly had worked, and what hadn’t, over the course of the year-long campaign. “We just can’t say -- and we’re saying it too much -- ‘we got killed by the media,’ ‘Donald Trump’s a black swan, it will never happen again,’ and ‘if it weren’t for him we’d be the nominee,’” said Roe.
As he, Wilson, and Polyansky chatted this week, they were quick to revisit some of the momentous decisions that led the way to Cruz’s withdrawal after Indiana. Wilson lamented having stopped his polling calls the final weekend before March 15, which he thought led to having Cruz spend too much time in Illinois and not enough in North Carolina and Missouri, where Trump’s eventual margin of victory proved much narrower. Roe regretted having five weeks later effectively yielded New York state to his rivals with the hope that John Kasich would have better success poaching delegates from Trump there than Cruz would.
But Roe treated those episodes as counterfactual trivia, with little didactic merit beyond second-guessing. Instead, he was fixated on what the postmortem would teach him about some of the more “granular” choices he had made. Would the campaign have been smarter to negotiate the lease-purchase of a jet rather than pay for a mix of chartered flights and last-minute commercial itineraries? Was it smart to have built in-house data and fundraising departments instead of outsourcing the work to consultants? These were the choices he knew he would confront when he wrote his next campaign plan or budget for a presidential candidate, in a Trump-free world.
Re-election looms in 2018, followed immediately by the next presidential season. “We were definitely the leader of the movement in this campaign, and we definitely intend to position ourselves to continue to be,” said Roe. “You can have someone who does a particularly effective job of communicating their message on their behalf, you can have someone who has the passion of a group of people who believe in the same philosophical beliefs and can exercise that muscle better than others,” said Roe. “But leaders don’t pick movements, movements pick leaders.”
Then he added an actuarial reminder about the man who said that he never fails to plan: “He’s 45.”