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Cruz’s Grass-Roots Role at NRSC Still Evolving

Sen. Ted Cruz was appointed vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee to diffuse a destructive tension with the conservative grass roots that has cost the GOP easy Senate victories — although how that translates to the Texan’s daily responsibilities remains in flux.

Unlike Sen. Rob Portman, whose duties as vice chairman of finance were clearly defined and undertaken soon after the Ohioan accepted the post, Cruz’s role as vice chairman of grass-roots outreach appears thus far to be rich in symbolism but light on substance. The goal, say Republicans familiar with the decision to appoint Cruz, is for him to improve NRSC communication with the grass roots and navigate what has been for the GOP a troublesome candidate recruitment and primary process.

NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran of Kansas offered a window into Cruz’s activities to this point and what he would like the freshman Senator to do as the 2014 cycle progresses. Cruz has joined Moran and Portman for meetings with NRSC donors and spoken with potential candidates to encourage them to run. Cruz won last year after harnessing tea party support to defeat a powerful GOP establishment figure in a contentious primary, and Moran said that experience is invaluable.

“He has an understanding of primaries and Republican voters in primaries,” Moran told CQ Roll Call during a brief interview. “We want to work with states and party organizations, the grass roots, members of Congress, people who have an interest in who the Republican nominee is for Senate to see if we can’t find consensus on candidates that can be nominated and that can win. We certainly want Sen. Cruz’s involvement in that process.”

Cruz directed a request for comment to his Senate office.

The inability to more clearly identify Cruz’s day-to-day role at the NRSC could be due to his only taking office in early January and the work involved with getting his Senate office up and running and prepared to serve a state the size of Texas. Additionally, the NRSC only announced the hiring of its full senior staff on Tuesday, making it the last of the congressional campaign committees to do so.

Still, Cruz has been “actively” involved in his new role, Portman said. The Ohio Republican, who mapped out the committee’s fundraising strategy and has already traveled to New York to meet with donors, said Cruz has participated in conference calls and talked to Republican senators about the political atmosphere in their own states. Some incumbent Republicans could face grass-roots-powered primaries, while some Democratic-held open seats, such as the one in Iowa, offer the GOP opportunities if it nominates electable candidates.

Some Washington-based Republican operatives are hoping that Cruz’s role includes quashing primary challenges to the establishment favorite in states where candidates perceived as more conservative could have difficulty defeating a Democrat in the general election. The open seat in West Virginia is a prime example. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is viewed by top Republicans in Washington and the Mountain State as the GOP’s best general election candidate, but some tea-party-aligned groups have already announced their opposition.

But that type of heavy-handed intervention is not what the NRSC and Senate GOP leaders expect of Cruz, a Republican Senate aide said — never mind that it is unlikely he would embrace such tactics given his political history. What they hope Cruz does is help send a message to the conservative grass roots that the NRSC is listening and wants a relationship with them in an effort to avoid divisive primaries that have sunk GOP prospects in winnable seats.

Many Republicans believe the GOP Conference would number 50, as opposed to 45, had the NRSC and tea-party-aligned groups cooperated effectively in 2010 and 2012 to nominate electable conservatives in divisive primaries. The GOP Senate aide said the NRSC made mistakes in 2010, when it failed to recognize the star power of candidates such as now-Sen. Marco Rubio and instead backed then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist in the Florida primary, but the campaign arm then overcorrected in 2012, when it took a completely hands-off approach to contested primaries.

A Republican senator familiar with the strategy behind tapping Cruz said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wanted to create a “greater sense of inclusion” between the Senate GOP establishment and conservatives, both within the conference and among grass-roots voters. Additionally, this senator said, Cruz’s particular political experience and national following with tea party voters “adds value.”

McConnell and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, the top ranking Republican leaders, are up for re-election next year. Tea party groups have made noise about recruiting against both men in primaries, although neither is currently viewed as likely to face a challenge of consequence. Still, they aren’t taking their races for granted, that much is clear.

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