GOP hopes of corralling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the 2014 primary season are officially dead.
The defiant Republican’s brutal criticism of Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) reelection campaign on Tuesday — and the involvement of a group he is technically a vice chairman of, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) — is just the latest example of the Tea Party hero refusing to play nice.
Meanwhile, his conservative base is rejoicing that he’s refusing to be cowed.
Cruz is furious at the NRSC for its involvement in the Mississippi primary to boost Cochran over challenger Chris McDaniel. After losing the June 24 runoff, in which national Republicans spent late money to help the six-term incumbent, McDaniel and his supporters are looking to challenge the result, citing evidence of illegal crossover voting from black Democrats.
On Tuesday, the Senate Conservatives Fund — another frequent thorn in the GOP establishment’s side that counts Cruz among its models and supported him in his own uphill 2012 primary bid — sent $70,000 to a legal fund set up by McDaniel.
National Republicans hoped they could tame Cruz when they gave him the NRSC position. But he officially took a hiatus from the group earlier this year when it became clear that it would be involved in helping incumbents win against Tea Party challengers.
But Cruz still remains vice chairman, and reiterated he won’t resign.
“It was unfortunate to see the D.C. political machine spending substantial money to urge 30,000 to 40,000 Democrats to vote in a Republican primary. And they did not do so in an effort to grow the party, to attract their support substantively on ideas. Rather the ads that were run made false racial charges and made no effort to secure those votes in the general election,” Cruz told reporters Tuesday, echoing comments he’d made the night before to conservative radio host Mark Levin.
He went on to criticize the Senate GOP campaign arm’s involvement specifically.
“When I signed on as vice-chair of the NRSC it was based upon an explicit commitment from leadership that the NRSC was going to stay out of primaries. Had they not made that commitment I would not have taken on that role,” he said.
“I participated in the NRSC early on as long as they honored that commitment, and when the decision was made for them to do otherwise I stopped participating because I think Washington insiders are notoriously poor at picking winners and losers in primaries. And indeed the Mississippi primary is Exhibit A for why the NRSC should stay out of primaries.”
Cruz told The Hill that he won’t resign from the organization’s leadership, however, because he shares “the ultimate goal of electing Republicans in general elections in November.” When pressed, he refused to say what, if any, work he’ll do to help the NRSC with fundraising or turnout once the primaries conclude this summer.
The freshman senator’s actions are frustrating to establishment Republicans who were happy to see Cochran reach out to Democratic-leaning black voters — and are tired of Cruz creating headaches for the party.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who just beat back his own Tea Party challenge, called Cruz “talented,” but said he disagreed with his colleague, warning against the type of rhetoric he used.
“I don’t know how you grow the vote among minorities if you don’t seek their vote,” he told The Hill. “If any Republican, particularly from the Deep South, can win reelection with the help of African-Americans, that is music to my ears. I hope to grow the vote among African-Americans in the general election. To say that’s a bad thing is really, I think, ill-advised.”
Other Republicans in both Mississippi and Washington, D.C., aren’t happy about Cruz’s remarks.
“Sen. Cruz is just wrong about it — that’s not what happened in Mississippi. The reality is Sen. Cochran simply got more votes than Chris McDaniel in the Republican primary. There’s a winner and there’s a loser and McDaniel lost,” said Mississippi-based Republican strategist Henry Barbour, who supported Cochran in the race. “We think it’s healthy to grow the party, we think it’s healthy to ask white and black to vote Republican.”
This is far from the first time Cruz has antagonized the GOP establishment by intentionally bucking its members to grab big headlines. He led the charge to defund ObamaCare that shut down the government last fall, which badly damaged Republicans’ poll numbers. Cruz has also pointedly refused to endorse his GOP colleagues in many races — even those without serious challengers, like former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who’d backed him in his own race.
While he hasn’t endorsed against incumbents, he has waded into open seat contests, backing successful Tea Party candidate Ben Sasse in Nebraska and losing candidate T.W. Shannon in Oklahoma.
Cruz’s approach stands in contrast to other possible Republican presidential contenders as the GOP looks to win the six seats needed for Senate control that’s eluded them thanks to past Tea Party fights.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) praised Cochran’s efforts to reach out to minorities following his primary win, for example. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told The Hill that although he wasn’t involved in the Mississippi primary, “it’s important to rally now around the winner,” saying it’s time to “move forward.”
Many Republicans refused to publicly criticize Cruz. Former NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas), whom Cruz had refused to endorse in his primary, said he didn’t want to weigh in on whether the senator should still be involved with the campaign committee. His fellow NRSC vice chairman, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), told The Hill that Cruz had been helpful at times.
But national Republicans privately say Cruz did almost nothing to help the NRSC even before they started getting involved in primaries.
“He’s a VINO, he’s a vice chairman in name only,” said one national Republican. “I’m not sure what the alternative is. Should we strip him of his vice chairmanship that he doesn’t actually do anything with? The hope is judging by his own words he’ll be helpful in the general election.”
But not everyone is so optimistic he’ll come around.
“Senator Cruz has every right to express himself,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, a onetime leadership aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
“But does it make any sense to have a vice chairman of the NRSC dispute the certification of the Mississippi Senate election in favor of a sitting Republican incumbent?”