The four main super PACs backing the presidential bid of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz were sitting on nearly $38 million at the end of June — second only in the GOP field to the super PAC backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
That money, mostly courtesy of four rich donors, could buy a lot of air time in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early primary and caucus states.
But for the time being, officials with those pro-Cruz super PACs say they aren't in any rush to start a television blitz — despite perceived signals from Cruz's campaign that such support would be welcome. The super PACs point out that blowing money early on TV time hasn't helped candidates like Bush, who's losing ground despite the fact that his campaign and super PAC have reportedly unloaded $20 million on the air.
Instead, Cruz's allies are putting their money into his ground game, convinced that hiring field staff and getting state operations up and running are — for now at least — wiser investments on the path to the GOP nominating convention next summer.
"We'll see everybody in Cleveland," said Toby Neugebauer, whose $10 million funded one of the pro-Cruz super PACs.
None of this means the super PACs are ruling out TV advertising. Their assessment appears to be that Cruz is doing just fine: His stock is rising across the country, especially in Iowa, where his own campaign has so far spent $315,000 on TV and radio ads.
"It's more of a question of sequence then substitution," said Kellyanne Conway, president of Keep the Promise I, one of the pro-Cruz super PACs. “We’re prepared to deploy our TV ads long before the March primaries.”
From the get-go, the pro-Cruz super PAC setup has been unconventional. While most candidates have one super PAC backing them, Cruz has four under the same umbrella — each named some iteration of "Keep the Promise" and each largely funded by wealthy individuals. In addition to Neugebauer, New York hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer has donated $11 million to one of the groups, and West Texas fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks have contributed $15 million to another.
Campaigns and super PACs are prohibited by law from coordinating their efforts. That means they are left to read each other's tea leaves if they want complementary strategies.
Among those tea leaves: In July, several hours of footage were uploaded to a YouTube account affiliated with Cruz, including interviews with members of his family that could have easily factored into biographical TV ads introducing Cruz to voters.
Earlier this month, the overture seemed to got more explicit. A Politico story on his super PACs reported that the "total absence of ads has created confusion and growing consternation inside the Cruz campaign," and quoted a Cruz adviser joking that the super PACs appeared to be "waiting so their media buyers make the highest commission."
"The impact that had on me was zero," Neugebauer said of the Politico story, adding that he does not believe any of the reporter's sources were senior campaign officials.
He's not the only person involved in the super PACs who scoffs at the idea that the groups need to be scooping up TV time right away. Conway said TV advertising at this point in the election cycle "has benefited nobody but the consultants who took a big percentage on the buys."
"You can try to move numbers with TV, but when you have 14 to 15 candidates in the race, and all of them have super PACs, it gets really, really noisy," added former South Carolina state Rep. Dan Tripp, who is working for another of the similarly named groups, Keep the Promise PAC, in his home state. "The advertising gets very inefficient.”
The super PACs' focus on the ground game over TV became further apparent on Monday when Keep the Promise PAC announced it had hired 14 paid staffers to organize for Cruz in South Carolina, with Tripp serving as the state director. The hires represent the biggest expansion yet into a state by a pro-Cruz super PAC and give Cruz allies a serious foothold in a state that could be a springboard into the March 1 primaries, when several mostly southern states are set to vote in what is being dubbed the "SEC primary."
Laura Barnett, a spokeswoman for Keep the Promise PAC, said the group believes building a ground game is currently the "wisest investment of our resources, given where we stand and given how large the field still is." She declined to comment on whether Keep the Promise PAC had any plans to invest in TV time.
In Iowa, the Keep the Promise family is also emphasizing its ground game. Keep the Promise I will have six staffers in the state by the end of the week, with plans to ultimately have 10, according to a spokeswoman for the group, Kristina Hernandez. Jeff King — the son of U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican — is leading the field program in the state for Keep the Promise I.
Conway, the head of that super PAC, said it is prepared to build field operations much deeper into the primary calendar, including in Nevada and the SEC primary states.
There is some peril to waiting too long to reserve TV time, a fact the pro-Cruz groups appeared to acknowledge in a presentation to donors that surfaced in July.
"Television rates start to skyrocket in December, making it impossible for candidates to define themselves and their views," the presentation read. "... by January, there is limited space at any price."
The same presentation made reference to a possible TV ad blast "in key primary states around the first debate," which was held Aug. 6 in Cleveland. Nearly three months later, there are no signs the ads ever materialized.
At at least one point, the Lubbock-based media-buying firm Landtroop Strategies appeared to be involved in the super PACs' advertising plans. The CEO and founder of the firm, Cathy Landtroop, said Tuesday that Landtroop Strategies did some consulting for the pro-Cruz groups "early on," specifically for TV and radio. She declined to comment further.
A promotional booklet the firm put online a month ago says, “This cycle, we were retained to strategize and build an effective and efficient media buy for multiple states on behalf of Keep the Promise, Ted Cruz’s super PAC. The starting budget was $38 million."
Conway said super PAC officials are monitoring ad inventory daily and are not concerned about missing out. Her Keep the Promise I is the only super PAC in the network that has been on TV since its launch — it ran a single ad during the University of Iowa-Iowa State football game in September. Otherwise, the group's paid media efforts have so far centered on a $1 million radio ad campaign focused on Christian and conservative networks and shows.
In recent weeks, those spots have been criticized by the head of a relatively tiny pro-Cruz super PAC that is separate from the Keep the Promise network. The group, Courageous Conservatives PAC, has drawn attention for its willingness to go after Marco Rubio, the presidential hopeful chasing Cruz in the polls.
The Courageous Conservatives PAC has spent just under $50,000 on ads so far in Iowa, according to strategist Rick Shaftan, who has made no secret of his disdain for how Keep the Promise I is pitching Cruz on the radio.
"They have these ads out nationally that are just dreadful. They're just horrible ads," Shaftan said. "That's why we created this PAC, why we've been aggressively out there."
The Keep the Promise groups welcome any additional help, they say, but draw a distinction between their $38 million juggernaut and the relative newcomer super PAC, which launched Sept. 16.
"Keep the Promise has one goal: to elect Sen. Cruz president of the United States," Conway said in a statement Monday. "Others want their 15 minutes of fame; we want him in the White House for 8 years."