A firm owned by Cruz's campaign manager has been hired to help take out Sen. John McCain in his GOP primary, inflaming tensions with party leaders that have grown more pronounced since the Texas firebrand announced his presidential campaign earlier this year.
The Kansas City-based firm, Axiom Strategies, was founded by Cruz's campaign manager, Jeff Roe. According to campaign finance filings reviewed by CNN, the firm has recently received roughly $60,000 in payments for consulting services from the campaign of state Sen. Kelli Ward, who is launching an insurgent bid against the 28-year Senate veteran and former GOP presidential candidate.
Cruz officials said that the senator had no involvement in the firm's work. Roe referred questions to Axiom, which said that he has been working full-time on Cruz's campaign since February and has had no involvement in the Arizona Senate race.
But the connection is the latest development in a long-running feud between Cruz and party leaders, a battle that has become central to his campaign for the presidential nomination.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee -- faced with defending 24 GOP Senate seats, including some in decidedly blue territory -- has flatly warned that any firm helping a primary foe take out a GOP incumbent would be blacklisted.
"Our policy is clear," said Kevin McLaughlin, deputy executive director of the party committee. "The NRSC will not work with anyone who works against Senate Republican incumbents."
A person familiar with Axiom's activities said the firm was looking at severing its work with Ward because its resources were stretched too thin to meet the candidate's needs.
Cruz has become the scourge of his party leaders, increasingly calling out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in blunt terms and lashing his colleagues for cutting deals with Democrats. And if his colleagues despise him, it's something he's more than happy to tout on the campaign trail where voters view Washington with disgust.
"As we look back over the last 10 months, one is left with the conclusion -- and a rather shocking conclusion -- that Majority Leader McConnell has proven to be the most effective Democratic leader in modern times," Cruz said on the Senate floor last week, as he lambasted a budget deal cut between GOP leaders and the White House.
A spokesman for the GOP leader declined to comment on Cruz's speech.
Cruz plays nice on the trail
On the campaign trail, Cruz has taken a different tack than the one shown against McConnell, something that seems to be playing to his benefit as he remains in the top tier of contenders for the nomination. He has refused to attack most of his fellow GOP rivals -- in an apparent attempt to showcase himself as a unifying figure who can encourage his opponents' supporters to jump ship.
Cruz has been especially reserved with competitors whom he views as in his ideological lane.
When asked this past weekend in Iowa if he had any problem with controversial research on fetal tissue conducted by Ben Carson -- a conservative whom Cruz's team is watching closely given his fundraising might -- the freshman senator paused before declining to weigh in.
"I'm a big fan of Ben Carson," said Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general. "When it comes to defending life, there is no candidate in this field that has a stronger record."
The sole exception has been Jeb Bush, who Cruz has seen as a useful foil and as a stand-in for the Washington establishment. Cruz may have abandoned his verbal jab at Bush in his stump speech this summer --- the only presidential candidate he would mention by name -- but he has continued to use Bush as ammo for his invectives, at times saluting the former Florida governor for his "candor" in supporting Common Core and a path to citizenship.
Cruz likes to chide media who invite "Republican-on-Republican violence," but he has also pledged to draw more contrasts as "campaign seasons" change.
Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz, said that the senator will "not engage in personal attacks," though he will showcase policy differences between him and his rivals.
"The senator hasn't hesitated to shine a line on Washington's failures since arriving in Washington," Frazier said.
Of late, Cruz has slipped up and said that Trump won't be the GOP nominee -- a comment aides have characterized as perhaps inarticulate but not meaningful. Cruz has effectively -- and successively -- taunted fellow Sen. Rand Paul by arguing that it is Cruz who is the true successor to the legacy of Ron Paul.
And he has even began to tangle with Rubio by pointing out the Floridian's work with the Gang of Eight immigration negotiators -- singling out Rubio last week during a Fox News interview.
"Let's be very clear on immigration: I led the fight against Obama's amnesty, against the Gang of Eight which was championed by Barack Obama, by Chuck Schumer and by Marco Rubio," Cruz said on Fox News.
Cruz and Senate Republican primaries
Even as he's sparred repeatedly with GOP senators, the 44-year-old Cruz has resisted aiding tea party challengers in their quests to unseat Republican incumbents. In the aftermath of the 2013 government shutdown fight, which many GOP senators blamed him for starting, Cruz privately told his colleagues that he would not try to defeat them in their primaries or fundraise for the group, Senate Conservatives Fund, which was at the time targeting an array of sitting senators.
"Sen. Cruz is in the middle of his own presidential campaign, which is where his focus will remain," Frazier said.
McCain, the 79-year-old chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the biggest target for conservative groups, who have seized on his history of working with Democrats, particularly on immigration. But so far, influential conservative activists are not yet convinced that his main primary foe -- Ward, a physician and state senator since 2013 -- would be viable in a 2016 primary bid.
This wouldn't be the first time McCain and Cruz have clashed. He memorably called Cruz, Paul and Rep. Justin Amash "wacko birds" in March 2013. "They were elected, nobody believes that there was a corrupt election ... ." McCain told the Huffington Post. "But I also think that when, you know, it's always the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone." He later apologized for the remark.
Roe's firm, Axiom Strategies, has tried to help Ward gain her footing. According to Federal Election Commission filings, Axiom received monthly retainers of $5,000 from Ward's campaign from June through August, with an additional $20,000 for media production and other fees for research. A subsidiary of Axiom also received more than $17,000 for renting lists and printing costs.
While Axiom is now trying to help Ward find another general consultant to keep up with her needs, one official with the Kansas City-based firm said that Roe has been fully engaged with Cruz's campaign since he moved to Houston with his family in February.
"I've seen him in KC once since (February) -- at a Royals game," said Travis Smith, vice president of Axiom Strategies. "He was not involved in the Ward race whatsoever."
Even so, McCain is not taking his race lightly. In 2010, facing primary opposition from the right, he ran an expensive, scorched-earth effort against radio host and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
In an interview with CNN, McCain said he was planning a wave of positive ads to spotlight his record -- and he would not rule out launching any negative ads against Ward, who has raised just over $500,000.
"You can't overstate the unhappiness that's out there -- and it's at Washington. My view to a large degree is that it's justified," said McCain, who has nearly $5 million in the bank. "I am working harder than I have in any Senate election since I first ran."