When Sen. Ted Cruz went to the Senate floor Tuesday to block a bill that would fund the federal government for the next two months, he said to the C-SPAN cameras, "We don't need fake fights. We don't need fake votes. What we need is real change."
But at that moment, Cruz was leading a fake fight over a fake vote that nearly all in Washington agree would never actually defund Obamacare the way Cruz said it would.
As for the “real change” Ted Cruz said he was looking for, that change has arrived in Washington, and the change is Ted Cruz himself. Almost single-handedly, the freshman Tea Party apostle has upended the clubby U.S. Senate, roiled the tradition-bound GOP, and revolutionized the business of power in the nation’s capital, all thanks to the health-care bill that Cruz, former senator Jim DeMint, and a small army of conservative operatives have essentially made a living out of hating.
"These guys aren't stupid. They can read the votes,” says a veteran Republican operative. “That's why Republicans are so infuriated. Folks know exactly why they're doing this. They are using this issue and misleading conservatives in order to expand their own influence and raise money for themselves."
The biggest actors so far in Defund, Inc. have been Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, the leadership PAC that Jim DeMint launched as a senator and handed off to his former staff members to run as a conservative super PAC. While Cruz led the defund fight in the Senate this summer, the SCF led a huge parallel fight on the outside, setting up a website, running radio and television ads, robocalls and a direct mail campaign, all designed to raise money from still-hot conservative activists and urge them to sign a petition to tell Congress not to fund the health-care bill when they greenlight funding for the rest of the government.
Starring in the ads, the robocalls, and the direct-mail campaign were Cruz and Lee, two former Supreme Court clerks turned underdog Senate candidates turned conservative Senate firebrands. As Cruz and Lee staged a filibuster-like marathon speech session Tuesday into Wednesday, the SCF streamed them on its website. But while Lee’s brand of fire is like a light you’d offer a friend looking for a smoke, Cruz’s heat has been pure napalm, much of it focused at his own Republican colleagues in the Senate. It’s made Cruz easily the most hated man in the Senate, but a figure quite beloved by Tea Party purists who want nothing more than to support a senator who is willing to mix it up in a scrum, even—or maybe especially—with his fellow Republicans.
It was that willingness to not only break, but assault, Ronald Reagan’s 11th Amendment not to speak ill of a fellow party member, that got Cruz noticed in his 2012 primary race in the first place. Cruz was running against David Dewhurst, Rick Perry’s almost blindly loyal lieutenant governor in Texas and a trusted member of the Lone Star State Establishment. But Tea Partiers in Texas and DeMint conservatives in Washington wanted someone fresh and feisty and in short order, they got Ted Cruz. Cruz quickly became the marquee candidate for the Senate Conservatives Fund and later Senate Conservatives Action. The Club for Growth’s PAC joined in, as did Dick Armey’s group, FreedomWorks.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the conservative pro-Cruz outside interest groups plowed millions into the primary, outspending the pro-Dewhurst super PACS and giving Cruz enough lift to win. The top two super PACs supporting Cruz were Club for Growth Action, which spent more than $5.5 million to help elect Cruz, and the Senate Conservatives Fund and Senate Conservatives Action, which spent $1.3 million and gave Cruz more than any other candidate that cycle. Members of the Club for Growth and the SCF were also the top two sources for Cruz’s individual donors, with more than $1 million combined.
Fast forward one year and Cruz has become a superstar for the conservative movement that the Senate Conservatives Fund is looking to harness. Thanks to Cruz’s star power, they’re doing it. As Cruz and Lee’s multimedia campaign blanketed the country, the month of August, typically a snooze for D.C.-based fundraisers, yielded the SCF’s largest nonelection year fundraising month to date, at $1.5 million.
Most importantly, the SCF now has in its possession a massive email list of potential like-minded donors, thanks to the 1.5 million people who signed the defund petition on the Don’tFundObamaCare website. While "a list" may just be a roster in some circles, in the parlance of power and politics, a list is nothing less than a warchest-in-waiting for the SCF to use on behalf of its allies and against its enemies in the 2014 mid-term elections and the 2016 presidential race. It also makes the SCF the most relevant, and possibly the most powerful, conservative group in the country, including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.
If anyone is still confused after the Obamacare funding fight (faux filibuster and all), Ted Cruz is now a 2016 contender and the SCF’s biggest ally. Its enemies are many of the men and women he shares a cloakroom with—any Republican senator who did not join in.
That’s the part that has Cruz’s fellow Republicans fuming. Although the Fund has run just one ad against a Democrat (Sen. Mark Pryor) this cycle, it has taken the unprecedented step of running ads attacking seven GOP senators, including Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, and Lindsey Graham, for not opposing Obamacare enough, even though they all voted against the bill and said they would vote to defund it. Last week, the SCF announced it would also run ads against House Republicans if they fail to embrace the right defund strategy.
"In the summer of 2009, the Tea Party energy was appropriately focused on President Obama and his agenda," said Brian Walsh, the former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2010 and 2012 elections. "It's unfortunate that a couple of groups are shifting that energy against Republicans for their own benefit. In 2009, they were having town halls bashing Democrats. In 2013, they're having town halls bashing Republicans."
Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi and chairman of the RNC, has similar complaints, singling out the Senate Conservatives Fund for attacking Republicans instead of Democrats in an interview with The Washington Post. "The House of Representatives has voted to repeal Obamacare in one form or another something like 40 times since it went into effect, yet some of these groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund or the Club for Growth attack the same Republicans who voted against OC, but they attack them over tactics,” Barbour said. “There is just no excuse.”