Ted Cruz expands big money donor network in race against Trump

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz wooed big donors in Las Vegas this weekend, but GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson has yet to make a commitment
  • Cruz pitches a bigger tent to a Republican establishment, he is also building a broader financial base than he has ever enjoyed before

Las Vegas (CNN)The friends marched in to a back room here at AquaKnox, a restaurant just off the floor at The Venetian offering "Global Water Cuisine," backslapping and ebullient, having spent more than a year shoulder-to-shoulder raising cash for Ted Cruz -- and finally getting a return on their efforts.

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Then, not 10 minutes later, a separate phalanx of Cruz fans greeted the maître d', few wearing the name tags embroidered with National Finance Committee prestige -- and some of whom have been among his harshest critics.
    "We're with the Cruz event," one said as he paced briskly past the greeter.
    Technically, they weren't. But in they went to nosh on pistachio macaroons and glasses of wine with the Texas senator, taking their first steps of what Cruz hopes will be a united Republican front in opposition to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
    Those steps could not come soon enough: Cruz's hard-line brand of conservatism won him legions of grassroots loyalists, but it has also forced him to depend on a narrow cluster of Republican funders -- mostly from his home state of Texas, and many of whom are new to both presidential fundraising and the 45-year-old's generation.
    Now, as Cruz pitches a bigger tent to a Republican establishment, he is also building a broader financial base than he has ever enjoyed before.
    "A year ago, you felt like it's us against the world," said Saul Gamoran, one of Cruz's original and top fundraisers. "Now you feel like the world is coming to us -- and it's a wonderful feeling."
    Cruz's "investor summit" -- held simultaneously with the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting at the Sheldon Adelson-owned hotel and casino -- was talked about by some in Cruz's orbit as resembling a special clarifying moment, when the Republican candidate solidified the momentum he needs for the rest of the presidential race.
    The campaign points to new fundraisers who joined Cruz at the Venetian as a sign that their money world is strengthening and entering a new phase of development. Those new bundlers, numbering at least a dozen, received a special shout out from Willie Langston, Cruz's finance chair, at strategy sessions on Saturday.
    "There are faces in here I've never seen before," Jeff Roe, Cruz's campaign manager, told CNN. "There are names on the board of people doing significant events for the senator that I've never seen before. And we're doing it in places where we've never done it before."
    The scene unfolded here in private conclaves and cavernous ballrooms, a full-throated pitch by Cruz to declare himself the last, best hope to save the GOP from Trump. Donors to Cruz shuffled between craps tables to panels organized by his super PAC to those organized by his official campaign, rooms that were at one point just one door away on the ornate third floor of the hotel.
    And Cruz, before and after his private huddles privately with leading Republican Jewish donors, recognized in his pitch to the RJC on Saturday afternoon that he has had limited access to their deep Rolodexes so far -- but that he was eager to change that.
    "We started this race with 17 candidates. Many of you started with somebody else," he said, acknowledging that many in the room disagreed with him on immigration and gay marriage. "We have to achieve that unity -- and we've got just over 100 days to do it."
    Mel Sembler, a longtime Bush family fundraiser on hand at The Venetian, sensed new financial momentum for Cruz. When Cruz was introduced this weekend here by endorser Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as the country's next president, "the room went up in a roar."
    "Two weeks ago, you might not have heard that roar," said Sembler, who argued that anti-Trump money is slowly turning into pro-Cruz cash. "Something is changing."
    But the change has been slow. Few of the major anti-Trump spenders so far have chosen Cruz as the man they'd prefer in his stead. Its super PAC has been almost entirely dependent on three wealthy families, one of which continues to frustrate campaign allies by having pledged cash but still not spending it. And the campaign has to this point enjoyed a top-tier digital fundraising shop, but has not won over substantial numbers of the practiced bundlers that once flocked to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio's campaigns.

    Adelson still on sidelines

    No new face would be more celebrated than the man who loomed large over the weekend at The Venetian: the hotel's titan, Sheldon Adelson. The magnate gave more money in 2012 to Republicans than did any other person in the country but has essentially sat out the 2016 campaign. While Adelson's chief emissary, Andy Abboud, dropped by some Cruz events, the pair were not scheduled to sit down this weekend, Adelson's office said.
    Cruz was the first-choice of few board members of Adelson's Republican Jewish Coalition, the group of about 50 top GOP moneymen who Cruz courted all weekend, highlighted by a speech here on Saturday afternoon.
    But given lingering uneasiness about what a Trump presidency would mean for Israel, these Jewish donors are increasingly joining Cruz's donor base, with several prominent RJC members forming the line of people who rushed to see Cruz at AquaKnox on Friday evening.
    It was lost on few that the long-scheduled RJC spring meeting came at the same time and place as the investor summits organized by Cruz's campaign and super PAC. All RJC donors had to do to get a taste of Cruz's pitch was ride down an escalator from the fourth floor to the third.
    That's where top Cruz aides like Roe and Jason Johnson briefed campaign donors -- who raised enough cash to be called a "Founder," a "Statesman" or a "General," -- on panels ranging from "Path to Victory" to "Media and Creative" and an "Investor Update." Cruz's super PAC hosted its own dinner featuring Cruz and Scott Walker, and its own briefings -- but coordinated their schedule so donors could have one seamless download of pro-Cruz intel.
    "The Cruz campaign has shown itself to have a very good grasp on a lot of the clever tactics that you can employ when you need to broaden your financial base," said RJC board member Wayne Berman, a leading Republican fundraiser who chaired Marco Rubio's finance team. "They key to success in doing it is execution."