The announcement that rolled out before sunrise on April 8, 2015, was a shocker. Allies of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, at that point a long shot in the presidential race, had raised a whopping $31 million in one week.
The haul, which would grow to nearly $38 million by the time Cruz’s backers filed their first federal finance reports, instantly established Cruz as a force to be reckoned within the Republican race for the White House. It was Cruz’s own piece of the “shock and awe” action more commonly associated with one of his rivals, Jeb Bush, at the time.
Yet just as notable as the eye-popping haul was the manner in which the money was being channeled into the Cruz effort. Backers of the fledgling bid by Texas’ junior senator were experimenting with a new structure that they hoped would coax money from wealthy donors by giving them more control over how it was spent.
After Mitt Romney’s crushing defeat in the 2012 election, many donors to GOP super PACs were dissatisfied, feeling they got little bang for their buck and held no sway in critical decisions. Cruz’s allies wanted to change that.
The Cruz effort set out to redefine the still-evolving relationship between donors and the super PACs. Instead of one PAC, four separate ones were created, all titled some variant of “Keep the Promise.” Each was funded by one or a few donors, and they would control the purse strings.
In the 13 months following that pre-sunrise announcement, the Cruz super PACs would go through multiple iterations, multiple struggles for power and, ultimately, a consolidation that acknowledged the limits of their initial premise. As the dust settles on Cruz’s presidential campaign, which came to an end earlier this month, the super PACs are grappling with a legacy of their own.
In the unconventional structure, super PAC officials had found a model for giving donors more control — one likely to echo in coming election cycles — but also no shortage of challenges for the same reason. The man who started it all, Cruz consigliere Toby Neugebauer, ultimately spent only a fraction of the $10 million he committed to the cause, a growing source of frustration among people involved in the super PACs as Cruz’s campaign neared its end.
“I think it was the best first shot,” Neugebauer said in a recent interview, reflecting on what worked — and what did not — for the Cruz super PACs. “The donors having power could work, but the donors have to agree up front on who’s cooking in the kitchen.”
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