NEW BRAUNFELS — A number of attendees at a mid-morning rally for Chip Roy, a Republican candidate for Texas' 21st Congressional District, admitted they didn't know much — if anything — about him. But they did know one thing: He's been endorsed by his former boss, U.S. Sen Ted Cruz, and that counts for something in the GOP primaries, the most consequential part of an election year in Texas.
"Never heard of him at all, but if Ted Cruz supports him," Eddie Toro of Kyle said as he left the event with his wife, "we support him as well."
How much Cruz's backing counts for is about to be put to the test in a major way. For the March 6 primaries, he has gone all in for two former staffers — Roy and Jason Wright, who's running for the 5th Congressional District — in hopes of remaking part of the Texas delegation in his image as it goes through its biggest transformation in decades. Eight of the 36 U.S. House members from Texas — six of them Republicans — are not seeking re-election, creating a slew of vacancies enticing to a kingmaker like Cruz.
"With all these vacancies, I think it’s very important to Texas that [they] be filled by strong, principled conservatives who we can trust, who we can trust to do what they say and who we can trust to lead — because I fully expect the members elected from Texas to be leaders in Congress for a long, long time," Cruz said in an interview on the eve of his campaign trail debut for Roy. "So this is an opportunity — it’s an opportunity to elect strong conservative leaders that’ll make a difference, not just for Texas, but for the whole country.”
The primaries provide the first real opportunity to gauge Cruz's electoral clout in Texas since 2016, a year best remembered for his failed presidential campaign and tumultuous relationship with then-candidate Donald Trump. Since then, Cruz has worked hard to cultivate the image of a team player in Trump's Washington, aligning with his former bitter rival on a host of issues.
In previous election cycles in Texas, Cruz's support may have effectively ended a Republican primary, or at least crystallized a frontrunner. But the impact is not as clear-cut this time around: In the two races where Cruz is doing the most to help his former staffers, they are vying in crowded, competitive fields for open seats — a once-in-a-generation opportunity in a GOP-dominated state. Their chances of victory — or even a runoff berth — are anything but guaranteed at this point.
In TX-21 — where U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, is retiring — Roy is running in a massive 18-way primary that features an eclectic cast of characters, including a former congressman from a nearby district, a current state representative from the Hill Country, an ex-CIA agent with big-money backers and a former county party chair positioning himself as the most pro-Trump candidate. In TX-5 — where U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, is retiring — Wright is up against seven other Republicans, including Hensarling's handpicked successor, Republican fundraiser Bunni Pounds, and a state representative whose current legislative district covers a large chunk of TX-5.
The expansive primaries are likely to test how far Cruz's endorsement can go. Jimmy Weaver, the chairman of the Republican Party in TX-5's Kaufman County, said Cruz remains popular there and his endorsement "carries a lot of weight" — but he also suggested the race is far from over with about three weeks until Election Day.
"Right now it's kind of a big toss-up," Weaver said of the TX-5 primary. "You've got five credible candidates ... and who’s going to end up in the runoff is anyone’s guess."
The stakes are evident in the flood of political capital that Cruz has put on the line for Roy and Wright. He's spending days on the campaign trail, starring in radio and TV ads and hosting fundraisers for them. Plus, Cruz-aligned outside groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get his preferred candidates across the finish line — or to at least make sure their most serious opponents are not victorious.
The full-throated effort was on display Saturday morning in New Braunfels, where Cruz drew a crowd of over 100 people to a rally for Roy, who was Cruz's chief of staff when he first joined the U.S. Senate in 2013. With Roy leading his staff, Cruz quickly established himself as a conservative firebrand through pitched, often intra-party battles over gun rights and immigration reform.
"I worked everyday side by side with Chip. I can tell you this — this man is a conservative in his bones," Cruz said. "And when it comes to who's going to have a backbone — those first couple of years, you remember some of the brutal, bloody fights we had. I can tell you Chip was there side by side, leading the fight."
Cruz is also working to introduce Roy, a cancer survivor, to voters in a more sympathetic light. In New Braunfels — and in a TV ad released a day later — Cruz argued "Obamacare is personal" for Roy, implying he has seen firsthand the problems with the health care system that both men believe stem in part from the overhaul that President Barack Obama signed in 2010.
During the previous weekend, Cruz made several stops across TX-5 with Wright, regaling crowds with talk of Wright's unwavering support since Cruz's days as a low-polling, improbable Senate candidate six years ago. Wright was "one of the first 2 Percenters," Cruz recalled during an appearance in Sunnyvale, and once Cruz pulled off the upset, Wright promptly resigned from his post on the Tyler City Council and went to work for the freshman senator as his East Texas regional director.
In both races, Cruz's preferred candidates are being assisted directly — and indirectly — by the Club for Growth, a national conservative group that's long been allied with the senator. In TX-21, the Club's super PAC, Club for Growth Action, began airing a TV ad Monday that features Cruz facing the camera, extolling Roy's conservative credentials. In TX-5, the super PAC has already unloaded a quarter of a million dollars on digital and TV ads attacking two of Wright's opponents, Lance Gooden and Kenneth Sheets, for their voting records on taxes in the Legislature.
Gooden denounced the Club for Growth's spending as "a shameful attempt to prop up losing candidates," but it was hardly the first time Cruz's preferred candidates have taken heat for their association with him and his allies. Some of their primary rivals have sensed opportunity in rehashing the senator's clashes with then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, emboldened by the president's relatively high approval ratings among Republicans in their districts and lingering resentments from Cruz's initial decision not to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention.
At a forum last month for the TX-21 field, Dripping Springs state Rep. Jason Isaac seized an opportunity to revive the RNC drama when candidates were given the chance to ask one of their opponents a question. Turning to Roy, Isaac asked him what assurance he can offer Republicans in the district — particularly those in Isaac's Hill Country backyard — "that you too wouldn't abandon President Trump and refuse to support his agenda?"
In his response, Roy emphasized he has "spent the last year working closely to support President Trump and his administration," touting relationships he has built in the administration and on Capitol Hill under Trump. He then moved quickly to rebuff the circa-2016 image of Cruz as a Trump antagonist.
“What’s important here is that Sen. Cruz has been working very closely with the president," Roy said, pointing to Cruz's contributions to the Republican tax bill that Trump signed into law in December. "I would be happy and honored to work with both the president and Sen. Cruz."
In the interview, Cruz brushed off the idea his past battles with Trump could come back to haunt a candidate the senator has endorsed.
"Oh, look, people attacking their political opponents — that’s not new in politics," Cruz said. "It’s not going to go away anytime soon, and I’m not going to worry about any attacks that candidates are tossing around between each other."
While Cruz's political activities for Roy and Wright stand out, the two former staffers are not the only Texas candidates that Cruz has endorsed in open-seat congressional primaries this year. He has also given his support to state Sen. Van Taylor of Plano in his campaign to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson of Plano, as well as to longtime GOP donor Kathaleen Wall in her bid for the seat being vacated by outgoing U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston.