Cruz plays it safe in primaries

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is preparing to navigate the minefield of endorsements this cycle.

And he’s so far playing it safe, aware of the fact that taking one wrong step could sabotage the party’s chances in a competitive race and potentially saddle him with part of the blame for losing the Senate this cycle.

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Though he knows perhaps better than anyone the value of an endorsement — it was Sarah Palin’s late-breaking pitch for Cruz that helped him orchestrate an upset during his primary in 2012 — Cruz has made no indication he wants to be a kingmaker yet. 

He’s weighed in on just two races outside of Texas, both safe Republican open-seat primary contests, coming in after conservative consensus has largely coalesced behind a candidate. 

In the Nebraska Senate GOP primary, his endorsement Wednesday for Ben Sasse came after nearly every other national conservative group, as well as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Palin, backed the Midland University president. 

In the Republican race in Oklahoma, his support for former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) followed a similar pattern.

Cruz’s spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said the senator will be “actively engaged in helping Republicans win back the majority.” But in the space where his talents and clout with conservatives might be put to best use — GOP primaries in competitive states — Cruz has so far opted to stay out.

Despite taking on a position as the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s vice chairman of grassroots outreach, Cruz has taken no steps to stymie primary challengers or boost incumbents yet this cycle, and he hasn’t weighed in on any open races, where the outcome of the primary could affect GOP viability in the general election.

And he has reportedly said he has no plans to weigh in on more competitive primaries, because he’s opposed to the NRSC’s willingness to engage there.

It’s exactly the prospect of nominating untested, weak GOP candidates — who have cost the party winnable contests the past two cycles — that inspired the relationship between Cruz and the NRSC. 

The caution Cruz has shown reflects a bit of the Catch-22 he’s facing as he charts his territory as an emerging conservative leader nationwide. 

To be effective in the Senate — and if he hopes to launch a credible bid for president in 2016, as he’s expected to do — he has to be willing to work with establishment types. But to maintain the profile he’s built as a conservative firebrand, he has to be willing to work against them, too. 

“He’s not going out and making endorsements that could be criticized — what you would call irresponsible endorsements,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based GOP strategist. “A lot of these conservative U.S. senators are walking a tightrope. They want to have an impact and they want to grow their numbers in the Senate.”

So at least for 2014, Cruz is likely to toe a line somewhere in between.

He’s been attending NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran’s (Kan.) weekly presentations on the Senate map to his colleagues and comes to the committee’s quarterly luncheons. NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen said he’s been helpful in messaging but gave no indication of where he might be active in primaries.

“He’s been a powerful voice warning about the dangers of ObamaCare and the lawlessness of the Obama administration,” said Hougesen. 

In competitive GOP primaries in North Carolina and Georgia, where the establishment pick doesn’t have full conservative support, his decision to endorse could be pivotal for the party. 

In North Carolina, for instance, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) decision to back physician and conservative favorite Greg Brannon over establishment pick House Speaker Thom Tillis was a big win for Brannon and a notably risky move for Paul — but Cruz has given no indication he plans to play there.

And after drawing heavy backlash from his more establishment-minded colleagues for successfully pushing a government shutdown, Cruz issued a bit of a mea culpa in pledging not to actively work against incumbent GOP senators in their primaries.

But he’s not working for them either, notably refusing to back fellow Texas Sen. John Cornyn in his race, until he was safely past a primary challenger. 

In contrast, Paul endorsed his home-state colleague Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in his primary, even though Tea Party groups are working against him. 

Frazier said Cruz is receiving plenty of requests and could still weigh in on more races down the line.

“The door is open for him to make more decisions. His priority in any race that he chooses to get in is to back the candidate that he believes will stand strongly for conservative principles and help advance the conservative movement in Washington,” she said.

Even in general elections, however, Cruz’s role is complicated, as he remains the face of the government shutdown. If he campaigned for any Republicans in general election fights in competitive states, his engagement would give Democrats an easy opportunity to hammer the nominee as tied to the GOP dysfunction which Cruz has come to symbolize.

Still, his endorsement remains a top prize for many candidates. Tyler Grassmeyer, Sasse’s campaign manager, said Cruz’s endorsement and planned rally on Friday, just 17 days out from the primary, came at just the right time.

People in Nebraska “are just head over heels excited”  for Cruz’s visit, he said. “This is a huge momentum boost.”