De­spite Ban­non's bless­ing, Cruz to face 2 chal­lengers

The two men are un­de­terred by long odds in Se­nate Repub­li­can pri­mary.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Tilove jtilove@states­man.com

In Oc­to­ber, Steve Ban­non, who had left his post as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s chief strate­gist to re­turn to the com­mand of Bre­it­bart News, an­nounced that he was declar­ing war on all Repub­li­cans in the Se­nate who are up for re-elec­tion in 2018, with the ex­cep­tion of Ted Cruz, to cre­ate a Se­nate more amenable to Trump’s agenda.

But, Ban­non’s grace not­with­stand­ing, Cruz not only will have a pri­mary in March but will face two chal­lengers, and Ban­non him­self might be­come a cam­paign is­sue.

“I’ve taken to calling ev­ery­one that Ban­non is back­ing ‘Ban­non’s bar­bar­ians,’ ” said Ste­fano de Ste­fano, a Hous­ton en­ergy at­tor­ney who in July an­nounced that he was go­ing to leave his job with Di­a­mond Off­shore Drilling to chal­lenge Cruz for re-elec­tion.

“Th­ese guys are the bar­bar­ians at the gates,” he told the Amer­i­can-States­man last week. “They don’t care about the coun­try.”

De Ste­fano voted for John Ka­sich in the 2016 Repub­li­can pri­mary in Texas, in which Cruz de­feated Trump. In the gen­eral elec­tion, he said, “I didn’t vote for Trump. I would never vote for Trump.” (He said he also didn’t vote for Hil­lary Clin­ton.)

But Bruce Ja­cob­son Jr., a Chris­tian TV ex­ec­u­tive

from North Rich­land Hills in North Texas who en­tered the race Thurs­day, be­lieves that Trump’s elec­tion was some­thing of a mir­a­cle.

“I will say it was an amaz­ing thing what hap­pened with Don­ald Trump,” he said in an in­ter­view with the Amer­i­can-States­man. “I felt like that was real move of God there.”

“Steve Ban­non doesn’t know me ... yet,” Ja­cob­son said. “Maybe he’ll have the op­por­tu­nity. Maybe he’ll get to know me. He’ll cer­tainly hear about me, I’m sure. I don’t know Mr. Ban­non; I’ve never met him. So we’ll see how that de­vel­ops.”

Ban­non and Cruz are also bound by the megadonors Robert Mercer and his daugh­ter, Re­bekah, who poured mil­lions into Cruz’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign be­fore Trump’s and helped fi­nance Bre­it­bart News and Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, the data com­pany that worked for the Trump cam­paign.

Nei­ther de Ste­fano nor Ja­cob­son is likely to slow Cruz’s pur­suit of a sec­ond term in Novem­ber, when he would face U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso.

“Un­til I see a whole lot of other peo­ple talk­ing about you, you’re talk­ing in­side a box, and I’ve seen no res­o­nance of any­one talk­ing about any­body but Cruz,” said David Bar­ton, an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics in Texas who was for Cruz be­fore he was for Trump.

“I ex­pect Cruz to cruise through the pri­mary and win a com­fort­able re-elec­tion in 2018,” said Austin-based Repub­li­can strate­gist Matt Mack­owiak. Against O’Rourke, Mack­owiak said, “I can’t imag­ine it get­ting closer than 8 per­cent, and could be more in the 12 to 14 per­cent range.”

“That doesn’t mean that he’s not go­ing to take it se­ri­ously, that he’s not go­ing to run a real race,” Mack­owiak said of Cruz. “In this en­vi­ron­ment, you don’t know what could hap­pen. I know he’s work­ing, re­ally, re­ally, re­ally hard, con­cen­trat­ing on state is­sues and work­ing closely with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

“They un­der­stood they had to re­pair some things af­ter the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, and I think they’ve gone at it in a fairly me­thod­i­cal, strate­gic, fo­cused, deter­mined way,” he said.

What­ever mark they leave on the 2018 elec­tion, Cruz’s pri­mary chal­lengers are the residue of an ex­traor­di­nar­ily po­lar­iz­ing first term.

‘Lyin’ Ted’

In 2012, Cruz, a for­mer Texas so­lic­i­tor gen­eral in his first run for elec­tive of­fice, came out of the blue to beat Lt. Gov. David De­whurst for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion and breeze to elec­tion in the fall. With stun­ning bravado, Cruz ar­rived in the Se­nate like Sam­son in the tem­ple. Scarcely two years into his term, he launched a cam­paign for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion aimed at be­com­ing the cham­pion of tea party and Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive dis­con­tent. But for the un­likely emer­gence of Trump as an even more dis­rup­tive po­lit­i­cal fig­ure, Cruz might have pre­vailed.

“Very few peo­ple pre­dicted that he was go­ing to fin­ish sec­ond in the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries out of 17 can­di­dates, but he did,” said Mack­owiak, who is also chair­man of the Travis County Repub­li­can Party. “He over­per­formed at ev­ery level, at ev­ery step, and he got as close as any­one to pre­vent­ing Don­ald Trump from be­com­ing the nom­i­nee.”

While Cruz started out heap­ing praise on Trump, that soured as the con­test in­ten­si­fied. Trump be­gan rou­tinely re­fer­ring to Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted,” and Cruz, on the last day of his cam­paign in May 2016, said he was ready to say what he re­ally thought of Trump, de­scrib­ing him as an amoral narcissist and a patho­log­i­cal liar.

“I will tell you, as the fa­ther of two young girls, the idea of my daugh­ters com­ing home and re­peat­ing any word that man says hor­ri­fies me,” Cruz said.

Nonethe­less, Cruz was given a chance to ad­dress the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Cleve­land in July. In a dra­matic speech, he with­held his en­dorse­ment from Trump amid a cas­cade of boos. The day af­ter the con­ven­tion, Trump threat­ened to form a su­per PAC to de­feat Cruz for re-elec­tion.

But af­ter a pub­lic warn­ing from Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick — who went from chair­ing Cruz’s cam­paign in Texas to chair­ing Trump’s cam­paign in the state — that he was do­ing him­self griev­ous po­lit­i­cal dam­age, Cruz en­dorsed Trump’s can­di­dacy that fall.

Since Trump en­tered the White House, Cruz has been a gen­er­ally loyal ally and de­fender of the pres­i­dent in the Se­nate.

“Those who were up­set with him not back­ing Trump have had to re­al­ize that he then got be­hind him, and he hasn’t done any­thing in the Se­nate to rile them up or to op­pose Trump,” said Bren­dan Stein­hauser, an Austin-based po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant who was one of the orig­i­nal na­tional or­ga­niz­ers of the tea party move­ment and ran U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s 2014 re-elec­tion cam­paign. “Steve Ban­non com­ing out and say­ing he’s the one guy we’re not go­ing to go af­ter cer­tainly helps Cruz.”

While Cruz is viewed more un­fa­vor­ably than fa­vor­ably among Texas vot­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Oc­to­ber Uni­ver­sity of Texas/Texas Tri­bune poll, Jim Hen­son, di­rec­tor of the Texas Pol­i­tics Project at UT, said what re­ally mat­ters is that “Cruz is very solid among Repub­li­cans of all stripes.”

“Strong con­ser­va­tives like him bet­ter than mod­er­ates, but th­ese num­bers among Repub­li­cans writ large are strong, and you would ex­pect that to be a se­ri­ous as­set in an off-year elec­tion where we know the com­po­si­tion of the elec­torate is go­ing to be very Repub­li­can,” Hen­son said.

‘I know what ser­vant lead­er­ship looks like’

De­spite their very ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences, de Ste­fano and Ja­cob­son share a view of Cruz as be­ing all about Cruz and an un­help­ful ob­struc­tion­ist.

“The se­na­tor from Texas has ba­si­cally aban­doned his constituency to run for pres­i­dent and to fur­ther his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer,” de Ste­fano said. “And he’s done a very good job of mar­ket­ing him­self as an out­sider, but this is a guy who went to Prince­ton and Har­vard, (clerked at) the Supreme Court and (served in) the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

De Ste­fano grad­u­ated from the Col­lege of the Holy Cross and Ford­ham Law School.

“It’s some­what of an open se­cret that Ted Cruz is run­ning for pres­i­dent again in 2020,” de Ste­fano said. “As I call peo­ple up to ask for money, the re­frain is, ‘You know who just called me? Some­one from the Cruz camp. He’s rais­ing money for 2020.’ So, no, I don’t think he’s re­fo­cused on Texas.”

In the Se­nate, de Ste­fano said, Cruz has been the “hu­man stop sign.”

“Any­thing that would make a dif­fer­ence, any pro­duc­tive dia­logue, he puts a stop to it,” de Ste­fano said. “You can’t ex­pect our sys­tem to work if no­body is will­ing to reach a deal on any­thing.”

Ja­cob­son is less di­rect in his rhetoric. “I re­ally don’t feel like I’m run­ning against any­one,” he said. But his cri­tique is sim­i­lar.

“Right now there seems to be a lot of anger in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, and I un­der­stand that anger drives a lot of peo­ple,” Ja­cob­son said. “In fact, anger can raise a lot of money. But hope — hope draws ev­ery­one, and I want to be about hope.”

“I know what ser­vant lead­er­ship looks like,” Ja­cob­son said. “I think peo­ple have lost what true ser­vice looks like and what it means to be a ser­vant, and you know, the great­est in the King­dom is the ser­vant.”

“I’m a coali­tion builder; I’m a bridge builder; I’m a peace­maker; I’m a ser­vant,” Ja­cob­son said.

Ja­cob­son pro­duces the show “Life To­day” for tel­e­van­ge­list James Ro­bi­son, who, dur­ing the course of the 2016 cam­paign, went from Trump skep­tic to Trump con­vert, ul­ti­mately emerg­ing as a spir­i­tual ad­viser to the pres­i­dent.

“Don­ald Trump was a su­per­nat­u­ral an­swer to prayer,” Ro­bi­son told Steven Strang, the au­thor of the book “God and Don­ald Trump.”

Ja­cob­son said Ro­bi­son sup­ports his de­ci­sion to run for Se­nate.

“James knows my heart,” Ja­cob­son said. “Our hearts are knit­ted to­gether. James has been very sup­port­ive be­cause he’s sup­port­ive of prin­ci­ples and val­ues and a con­ser­va­tive agenda, and we’ve worked to­gether for 23 years.”

Ja­cob­son said he con­sulted with for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia Sen. Rick San­to­rum and for­mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee — both sec­ond-time can­di­dates for pres­i­dent in 2016 — and they were sup­port­ive of his de­ci­sion to run with­out of­fer­ing a for­mal en­dorse­ment.

“That’s that echo cham­ber,” Bar­ton said. “Those are the guys you’d want to talk to, but those are the guys who aren’t win­ning in larger cir­cles right now. Kind of like the Sarah Palin ef­fect.”

“It would be hard to find some­one in the Se­nate who has been more re­li­able and more of a leader on so­cial con­ser­va­tive is­sues than Cruz,” Mack­owiak said. “So that may be more sort of a grudge match that’s be­ing held be­tween for­mer pres­i­den­tial com­peti­tors.

Mean­while, Dan McQueen, who was elected mayor of Cor­pus Christi in De­cem­ber 2016 and, 37 tu­mul­tuous days later, re­signed, told the States­man on Fri­day that he had de­cided to drop his plan to chal­lenge Cruz and back Ja­cob­son in­stead.

‘An in­dict­ment of his courage’

Per­haps the big­gest sur­prise of the Repub­li­can pri­maries — and the rea­son Trump won — was his abil­ity to trump Cruz with evan­gel­i­cal vot­ers whom Cruz courted so in­tently and with whom he seemed so deeply in sync.

Ja­cob­son said the party was blessed with a strong field in 2016. He didn’t say for whom he voted in the Texas pri­mary.

“I was try­ing to fig­ure out who was the most Rea­ganesque,” said Ja­cob­son, who said his mother started the first Draft Rea­gan ef­fort in Texas in 1968.

“It was very in­ter­est­ing to see how things pro­gressed and where it led us,” he said of the 2016 cam­paign. “My big­gest con­cern was mak­ing sure that Hil­lary Clin­ton wasn’t elected, and so I was thrilled with the re­sults and with where we are to­day and how we have a good con­ser­va­tive in the White House.”

Ja­cob­son was not at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion but watched Cruz’s speech on TV.

“I can re­mem­ber it very well; it was a very piv­otal point for me,’ he said. “Some­one asked me re­cently, ‘Were you boo­ing?’ My re­sponse was, ‘I wasn’t boo­ing, but my head dropped, and I was bro­ken­hearted, be­cause I felt like the fu­ture of our coun­try was hang­ing in the bal­ance, and I felt that with Hil­lary Clin­ton in the wings, and I’m see­ing light at the end of the tun­nel, and I could not be­lieve what I saw and what I heard.’” “I kind of grieved,” he said. Ja­cob­son re­called dur­ing the pri­maries all the other can­di­dates goad­ing Trump into sign­ing a pledge that he would sup­port the nom­i­nee of the party, a pledge the other can­di­dates, Cruz among them, all signed.

“If we can’t stand on our word, what can we stand on?” Ja­cob­son said.

When Ban­non is­sued his threat against in­cum­bent Repub­li­cans seek­ing re-elec­tion in 2018, Cruz ex­cepted, he was com­ing off Roy Moore’s de­feat in the Alabama Repub­li­can pri­mary of Sen. Luther Strange, the pre­ferred can­di­date of Trump and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, whom Ban­non wants to chase off.

That Ban­non tri­umph has cur­dled since amid a se­ries of al­le­ga­tions against Moore about in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior with women and girls as young as 14 when he was in his 30s.

Cruz with­drew his en­dorse­ment of Moore, but de Ste­fano said, “He was just think­ing, ‘What state­ment do I need to make that’s best for my po­lit­i­cal ca­reer and how fast do I have to make it,’ and to me that’s an in­dict­ment of his courage and his back­bone and his spine.”

Of Moore, de Ste­fano said, “This man has no busi­ness be­ing any­where near the Se­nate. He had no busi­ness be­ing near the Se­nate from the very mo­ment that he was try­ing to mix re­li­gion and coun­try and bring his theoc­racy to Alabama.”

Ja­cob­son said he thought Cruz made the right call on Moore.

“I hate that any­body’s been hurt or wounded,” he said. “Be­ing in the min­istry, as you can imag­ine, I deal with that on a daily ba­sis, peo­ple who have been hurt by other peo­ple’s ac­tions.”

“I don’t know what hap­pened there. I’ve heard what the me­dia has com­mu­ni­cated, which of­ten­times I’ve found not al­ways to be truth­ful. You know, fake news, they call it. So I don’t re­ally know what’s hap­pened,” Ja­cob­son said. But, “like many of the sen­a­tors who have with­drawn their en­dorse­ment based on the pre­pon­der­ance of the ev­i­dence, I would too.”

‘The fi­nances will come’

For Ja­cob­son and de Ste­fano, the stark­est prob­lem they face is that vir­tu­ally no one in the big state of Texas knows who they are, and they don’t have time or money to change that.

In the third quar­ter of the year, Cruz raised more than $2 mil­lion, and he now has $6.38 mil­lion in the bank.

Asked whether he has a tal­ent for fundrais­ing, Ja­cob­son replied, “Well, we’ll find out.

“I be­lieve that I have a gift­ing to com­mu­ni­cate my mes­sage, and if peo­ple will em­brace it and join hearts and hands with us, then I think the fi­nances will come,” Ja­cob­son said.

Last month, de Ste­fano’s cam­paign sent out a news re­lease with the head­line: “Texas Se­nate hope­ful brings in over half a mil­lion dol­lars in do­na­tions from across the po­lit­i­cal and so­cioe­co­nomic spec­trum, in­clud­ing his own pocket.”

But, it turned out, all but about $27,000 was from “his own pocket” in the form of a $500,000 loan to his cam­paign.

“From a cam­paign per­spec­tive, we had a lot more re­sponse to that press re­lease be­cause of that head­line than any other press re­lease we’ve sent out,” cam­paign man­ager Win­ston O’Neal said. “Next quar­ter, I’m pro­ject­ing about the same to­tal raised but from in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions as op­posed to a can­di­date loan.”

Mica Mos­bacher, the widow of for­mer Com­merce Sec­re­tary Robert Mos­bacher and an im­por­tant fundraiser for Cruz’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, at­tended a de Ste­fano fundraiser in Wash­ing­ton in late Oc­to­ber.

“I was dis­en­chanted with the Se­nate, and I was fed up over the fail­ure to pass Oba­macare re­peal and re­place,” Mos­bacher, a for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee fi­nance co-chair­woman and a se­nior ad­viser to the Trump 2020 cam­paign, told the States­man. “Since then, Sen. Cruz has worked very hard on tax re­form, and so the jury’s out. The Se­nate passes the tax re­form, I will con­tinue to sup­port Ted Cruz, and hope springs eter­nal.”

“I do find that Ste­fano is very im­pres­sive and would con­sider sup­port­ing him, if not in the Se­nate race, then in an­other race should he choose to run for some­thing else,” Mos­bacher said.

De Ste­fano said that run­ning against an in­cum­bent, it is tough to get any well-known donors to put their names on his fi­nance com­mit­tee, but “I’m ex­pect­ing some­one at some point will put their head up, and then the flood­gates will open.”

Steve Ban­non

Ste­fano de Ste­fano

Bruce Ja­cob­son Jr.

Ted Cruz

ERICH SCHLEGEL / GETTY IM­AGES

Sen. Ted Cruz (here in July) raised more than $2 mil­lion in the third quar­ter of the year, and he now has $6.38 mil­lion in the bank. Austin-based Repub­li­can strate­gist Matt Mack­owiak said he ex­pects Cruz to “win a com­fort­able re-elec­tion in 2018.”

SAN AN­TO­NIO EX­PRESS-NEWS

Ste­fano de Ste­fano, a Hous­ton en­ergy at­tor­ney, said, “I’ve taken to calling ev­ery­one that Ban­non is back­ing ‘Ban­non’s bar­bar­ians.’”

HIROKO MA­SUIKE / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Steve Ban­non de­clared war on all Repub­li­cans in the Se­nate who are up for re-elec­tion in 2018, with the ex­cep­tion of Cruz.

Bruce Ja­cob­son Jr., a Chris­tian TV ex­ec­u­tive from North Rich­land Hills in North Texas, said, “Steve Ban­non doesn’t know me ... yet.”

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