Steve Bannon steps aside, but Ted Cruz picks up 2 primary rivals

Nov 18, 2017
Stefano de Stefano, a Houston energy attorney, is a Republican U.S. Senate candidate. SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

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.

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“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.

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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.

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Jacobson produces the show “Life Today” for televangelist James Robison, who, over 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.

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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 if 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 press 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.”

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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.”