TYLER — Before delivering his stump speech to a rowdy crowd here numbering at least 1,000, Ted Cruz turned to two men offstage — both of whom flanked him as he paraded into the room, cameras flashing — and offered 26 words of seemingly boilerplate praise.
Thank you, the state's junior U.S. senator told U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe and state Rep. Bryan Hughes, "for your incredible support, for your friendship, for your passion, for your willingness to stand and fight for conservative principles and to represent East Texas values."
For Ratcliffe, whose re-election next year appears safe for now, it was just another day at work. But for Hughes, who is vying against fellow state House Republican David Simpson for a promotion to the upper chamber, it may have been the biggest moment yet in his nascent campaign.
That's because Cruz's backing — or even the slightest perception of it — remains the most coveted prize in Republican legislative primaries across Texas. And while the next round of nominating contests is still six months away, some GOP insiders are already buzzing about what role Cruz, whose status as a Tea Party rock star is only growing at home, could play in shaping the results.
"It's the million-dollar question for candidates and their campaigns," said a GOP consultant involved in the 2016 primaries. "If you can get it" — Cruz's support — "it's gold."
Speaking with reporters before the Tyler rally, Cruz did not directly answer when asked if he planned to get involved in competitive primaries next year for seats in the Legislature.
"You know, I have to tell you, I've got my hands full with a competitive primary in 2016, and my focus is on winning the Republican nomination in 2016 and then going to win the general election," Cruz said. He did not respond to a follow-up question asking if his response meant he was ruling out legislative endorsements.
Asked to clarify the senator's comments Friday, Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier reiterated in an email that his team is "focused on our own primary race."
To hopeful campaigns, those kinds of statements are enough to leave open the possibility that Cruz boosts them down the line in some way. The extent to which Cruz supported state-level contenders was a hot topic during the 2014 primaries, when he officially endorsed five candidates but lavished praise on several others, leaving little doubt whose back he had in some intra-party battles.
Among the beneficiaries of Cruz's not-quite endorsements was Ken Paxton, then a state senator from McKinney running for attorney general against state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas. Cruz never officially endorsed Paxton but often spoke highly of him, including during a January 2014 appearance at a North Texas rally that ended up factoring prominently in a TV ad produced by the Paxton campaign.
Those involved in the Branch-Paxton matchup remain convinced Cruz's involvement was decisive, propelling Paxton, a Tea Party favorite, ahead of Branch, a moderate Republican who had more experience, money and power. It's cases like Paxton's that linger in the backs of minds as the next slew of conservative underdogs gear up for the 2016 primary season.
The primary fields are still taking shape in many corners of the state, but Senate District 1 is one area where Cruz's clout could be put to the test. That's where Hughes and Simpson, both conservative stalwarts in the lower chamber, are squaring off to replace state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.
The optics at the Cruz rally here seemed to favor Hughes, who helped introduce the White House hopeful by announcing he was endorsing him then watched Cruz's stump speech a stone's throw from the stage, surrounded by other conservative luminaries from the region. Simpson, meanwhile, took in Cruz's remarks from far back in the room, where he would only tell a reporter he was glad Cruz was in East Texas when asked if he was backing the U.S. senator for president like Hughes was.
Cruz is not the only high-ranking Texas Republican to face questions this summer about his involvement — potential or otherwise — in the next wave of legislative primaries. Last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reversed his decision to stay out of the nominating contests and endorsed six Republican state senators for re-election — as well as Hughes over Simpson in SD-1.
In another legislative race — the one to replace Horseshoe Bay Republican Troy Fraser in Senate District 24 — former Gov. Rick Perry has already made an endorsement, last month throwing his support behind Austin ophthalmologist Dawn Buckingham. Perry's presidential campaign, however, cautioned Friday against reading too much into the endorsement.
"We're focused on our primary and make those decisions on a case-by-case basis at the appropriate time," said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the former governor.
In any case, conservative activists pin Cruz as the kingmaker to watch as primary season heats up. Katrina Pierson, an early supporter of Cruz for U.S. Senate, said Friday she expects him to wade into legislative races "where he feels his endorsement would matter, and if there is more than one grassroots candidate in the race," he will stay out.
One thing is for sure, though, she said: "He probably will be the most sought-after endorsement in the state."