Texas billionaire Darwin Deason and his son Doug are contemplating giving millions to help Ted Cruz win the White House. But first the Dallas investors need to sort out which super PAC should get their money.
At least eight independent political groups are jockeying to support Cruz now that he has risen in the polls as perhaps the strongest challenger to frontrunner Donald Trump. The dynamic has confused wealthy donors and brought disarray to the otherwise orderly political operation that surrounds the freshman senator from Texas.
“We’re trying to figure out who has the best management team, the most efficient cost structure,” said Doug Deason, adding that he is a bit baffled by the various entities. “I just don’t think we need a bunch of people doing different things, maybe putting out different messages that don’t match up.”
The swelling number of pro-Cruz super PACs illustrates a challenge posed by the hands-on approach rich donors are taking in the 2016 elections. After seeing little return on the massive sums they gave in 2012, major conservative givers are now deeply immersed in the tactics of the groups they are financing — and in some cases, running their own political operations.
Last year, three wealthy families helped launch Keep the Promise, a network of four super PACs currently rolling out a multi-state campaign on behalf of Cruz.
Now others are joining in. Doug Deason said he has been approached by a new group, Stand for Truth, backed by Fort Worth money manager Hal Lambert, which is promising to amplify the Cruz campaign’s message on the airwaves. And he’s also been pitched by Make DC Listen, a traditional PAC run by Cruz’s former Senate campaign manager that bundles contributions for the campaign and can accept only limited donations.
In an interview in Iowa this weekend, Cruz said the proliferation of super PACs working on his behalf was a sign of his appeal. But he also said it would be better if campaigns could accept unlimited donations themselves.
“There’s no doubt that the existing campaign finance laws are idiotic, that it would make far more sense for all of the spending and messaging to go through the campaign,” he said.
The crowded landscape is starting to worry some Cruz allies, who have begun to hear from major contributors uncertain about what roles the various organizations are playing.
“I think it is confusing,” said Mica Mosbacher, a top fundraiser for the Cruz campaign who said she tried to get some clarity before making donations to a couple of the super PACs. “What I did was talk to the individual running the PAC, asking how they spent their money.”
The best-funded operation is the Keep the Promise network, which raised more than $38 million in the first half of last year. But top Cruz supporters are quietly expressing frustration that one of the PACs, which was financed with $10 million from energy investor Toby Neugebauer, has not publicly displayed any activity.
Meanwhile, other groups are jumping in with their own efforts. A Missouri-based super PAC called Courageous Conservatives, whose consultant accused Keep the Promise of being “wimpy,” has been running radio ads in Iowa lambasting Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. And on Dec. 31, a low-profile group called Americans for Cruz filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, providing only the address of a UPS store in Arlington, Va., as its location. So far, it has spent $200,000 on voter phone calls in the early nominating states, according to FEC filings.
The biggest new player is Stand for Truth, a group formed in November by Lambert, a former finance chair of the Texas Republican Party. The group announced this month that it plans to run $4 million worth of ads supporting Cruz in Iowa and South Carolina.
Lambert’s move surprised many in Cruz world: Until then, he had been serving as a top bundler for the campaign. But recently he has taken on a higher profile, convening some of the campaign’s major financial backers. Last month, he hosted a party for supporters at the Republican debate in Las Vegas then huddled privately with fellow fundraisers in a suite during a Houston retreat for Cruz campaign donors, according to people familiar with the gatherings.
Lambert did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Eric Lycan, an attorney for the super PAC, said, “As Senator Cruz cements his status as the leading conservative candidate for president, it is important that he has the support of multiple super PACs focused on different, essential tactics.”
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist running one of the Keep the Promise PACs, said that she has been in touch with Lambert’s operation and that the two groups plan to keep each other apprised. “We don’t look at it as competitive at all,” she said.
The Keep the Promise operation was launched by Neugebauer, a close friend of Cruz’s who financed the effort with billionaire hedge-fund executive Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, as well as Farris and Dan Wilks, two brothers who built a successful hydraulic-fracturing services business in Cisco, Tex.
Each family put at least $10 million into separate but allied PACs. An umbrella group, Keep the Promise PAC, pooled smaller contributions.
Since then, the Mercer and Wilks PACs have been regularly coordinating with the main group, conferring on strategy and splitting the costs of new projects, such as a new ad hitting Rubio that launched last week and field organizers on the ground.
The PACs each have a different focus that reflects the interests of their benefactors: The Mercer group has spent more than $2.3 million on TV ads and direct mail, while the Wilks PAC has put more than $200,000 into reaching voters through Facebook and YouTube, according to FEC filings. That does not include any operational costs, which the groups do not have to report immediately.
“We try to coordinate daily with respect to the deployment of money, message and manpower,” said Conway, president of the Mercer-backed PAC. “We’ve tried to share duties and separate them, and not duplicate them.”
Largely absent from those discussions, however, has been Neugebauer, whose PAC has not reported spending any money so far. He does not participate in the weekly Tuesday-morning conference calls that the other three groups hold.
Neugebauer said he keeps in touch in other ways and that his PAC has spent roughly $600,000 on field and media expenses that will soon be reported. He added that he has heard no complaints about his strategy.
“I view this as a longer slog,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether any of his resources will go into coming efforts by the network, which plans to drop a blizzard of mailers in Iowa and South Carolina next week. The operation — which already has nine staffers on the ground in Iowa and 14 in South Carolina — is launching field efforts in March primary states such as Louisiana, where it will have 19 staffers, and Alabama, where four will be based. It is even developing plans for a ground presence in places such as Montana, which does not hold its primary until June.
“We’re the only one at this point who offers a combination of land, sea and air, the old World War II phrase,” said David Barton, a conservative Christian activist helping to lead the Keep the Promise effort. “We’re the only one of the PACs that offers the complete package.”
With competing groups on the scene, however, voters could begin hearing a muddle of pro-Cruz messages. Next week, both Keep the Promise and Stand for Truth are set to begin running new ads.
Darwin Deason, who gave $5 million to a super PAC supporting former Texas governor Rick Perry before he dropped out of the presidential race, wants to see a consolidation of the super PACs before he makes another major donation, his son said. In the next week, Doug Deason said he hopes to arrange a conference call with Neugebauer, the Mercers and the Wilks to get a better sense of how their operations function.
“I just think everybody needs to get on the same page and find a leader,” Deason said.
Karen Tumulty in Iowa and Anu Narayanswamy in Washington contributed to this report.