First on CNN: Christian group to play leading role in Cruz super PACs amid shake-up

Updated 10:13 PM EDT, Mon September 14, 2015
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Story highlights

The Christian leadership of an anti-abortion nonprofit is playing an emerging role in the super PACs backing Ted Cruz

The leaders of Online for Life have formed a new company that is effectively serving as a highly-touted data and digital operation for the independent groups

(CNN) —  

The Christian leadership of an anti-abortion nonprofit is playing a growing role in the super PACs backing Ted Cruz as the groups go through a major shake-up, CNN has learned.

The leaders of Online for Life, a Texas-based group that tries to convince women not to follow through with abortions, have formed a new organization that is effectively serving as a data and digital operation for the independent groups. Four top officials from the group, who have very limited campaign experience and are led by president Brian Fisher, launched Red Metrics LLC as part of a highly-touted Cruz strategy to organize evangelicals on social media, state and election records show.

The move by Cruz allies is the latest shift in the strategy of the Keep the Promise super PACs to win over social conservatives that are key to the Cruz coalition. Top Cruz super PAC donors and operatives – including those from Online for Life – met Wednesday night in New York to chart the next steps for the groups, which includes hosting fundraisers for Cruz and list-sharing with the Houston-based campaign.

Online for Life is praised by social conservatives for using apps and social media to link up women seeking to end a pregnancy with persuasive anti-abortion advocates. And the group’s involvement in a political campaign reveals the technology and Christian messages likely to be employed by the Cruz outside spending machine, which so far has shed little light about how it plans to spend its largely untapped fortune.

The big-dollar Cruz groups this week also sent word that their top fundraiser and strategist, energy investor Toby Neugebauer, who was effectively running the super PAC day-to-day, would be replaced by a Texas leader with deep ties to the nation’s most influential pastors, David Barton, a transition first reported by Bloomberg. Cruz spoke to a group of pastors that Barton organized on Wednesday afternoon in Washington, according to a tweet from Barton.

READ: First on CNN: Cruz super PAC’s plan to win presidency

Together, the developments hint that the four separate pro-Cruz groups are not proceeding as steadily as the super PAC’s cash totals suggest.

Defenders of the super PAC maintain that the move by Neugebauer, who gave $10 million to the Keep the Promise super PAC and helped bring in the other two major families who similarly cut eight-figure checks, will not affect the group’s operations. But his departure raises fresh questions about how effectively the Cruz groups – who only recently hired their first professional political operatives – plan to spend their surprisingly large war chest.

“It’s not a new direction at all,” said Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster and top official at the super PACs, saying it made “perfect sense” to hire Barton given that “many of those prospective donors are people of faith and or folks who are Texans.”

Keep the Promise is technically four separate, affiliated super PACs that are organized to give three families, including Neugebauer’s, more direct control of their spending. The arrangement – heralded by some campaign lawyers as innovative and by others as unusual – comes after some Republican donors felt their money was mismanaged by independent groups in previous election cycles.

But it is also allowing donors to hire their own operatives: the Wilks family of Texas, which runs and gave $15 million to the Cruz group Keep the Promise III, is one of the largest funders of Online for Life. People familiar with the super PAC say the family is impressed with the work Online for Life does. Farris and Dan Wilks are also very close with Barton, sources say.

READ: First on CNN: Billionaire brothers give Cruz super PAC $15 million

“They do their work through a decidedly non-political and apolitclal lens,” Conway said, praising them as data-driven operatives who know how exactly how many women they’ve steered away from abortions. “They’ve got this distinctive brand in the marketplace in that they can point to tangible and true metrics of success.”

Fisher and other leaders of Online for Life did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Meager spending so far despite deep coffers

Each group has its own political hands: The family of Bob Mercer, one of the biggest Republican donors in the country, is bankrolling Keep the Promise I, run by Conway, which has focused on paid media. And Neugebauer’s group, Keep the Promise II, will now be run by Barton. The three affiliated groups are expected to transfer money to the main, forward-facing group, Keep the Promise PAC, when it chooses to spend its millions.

But so far, that spending has been far and few between. The groups are only making their first advertising buys, and they reported on the last campaign-finance report mysteriously having spent virtually none of the $38 million they raised. Some outside critics have raised eyebrows at the Cruz super PACs’ meager spending so far, wondering what the group plans to do with its money. This weekend, the Keep the Promise groups will launch a new advertising campaign in Iowa during the state’s big football match up between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, Conway said.

The super PAC revealed in a presentation to donors earlier this summer that they hoped to emphasize wedge issues as part of their campaign, and they also called for greater emphasis on Cruz’s Hispanic heritage. Since then, the super PAC has also made a prominent early-state hire in Iowa.

READ: Steve King’s son signs on with Ted Cruz super PAC in Iowa

But it’s unclear if those plans will now change with the leadership move. Thomas Patrick, a six-figure donor to the main Keep the Promise PAC, said he didn’t expect turbulence with the shakeup, explaining that he only met Neugebauer after Cruz personally introduced him.

“I’m counting on them being real professionals,” Patrick said, adding that many more Cruz donors are still on the sidelines. “He’s got the ability to raise a lot more. He’s a big league guy.”

Cruz’s original lieutenant to the world of Republican megadonors, his close college friend David Panton, has more or less been sidelined in the outside money game as groups tied to Neugebauer rose in prominence, according to people who aren’t authorized to discuss the super PAC’s internal workings. Now, Neugebauer, who lives far from donors in Puerto Rico and who people say did not anticipate the amount of work required to run a super PAC, is scaling back his involvement in the Cruz groups, though he is not expected to revoke any of his large cash infusion.

The Cruz campaign is increasingly working with the super PAC, which cannot coordinate expenditures with the official headquarters. Cruz will attend a large fundraiser hosted by Keep the Promise in New York on Sept. 21, organizers said. Cruz is also wooing some of the large Republican donors who have not yet committed to his groups, like Darwin Deason, who is a major donor to Rick Perry’s groups, and Tommy Hicks Jr., a Texas businessman who sits at the center of a powerful political family.

Keep the Promise PAC, Conway said, has executed an email list swap with the official campaign, and a person familiar with the deal said Keep the Promise III has as well, giving the Cruz campaign a vast list of emails that the campaign can target. The Online for Life operatives, which have already built a Facebook page called “Reigniting the Promise” with more than 200,000 followers in about two months’ time, are expected to transfer over a list of emails to the Cruz campaign full of Christians who may have not been involved in politics that the campaign will now engage.

“They obviously are already experts in social media, so for them to transfer followers on social media is probably easy breeze for them,” Conway said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated which of the pro-Cruz PACs that Conway said have plans to execute email list swaps with the official campaign. Conway only said the Keep the Promise PAC has plans to do so.