In the next two years, the second-richest man in Congress, Rep. Michael McCaul, will decide whether to launch a bid to oust Ted Cruz from the Senate. The Texas Republican primary race would pit the establishment wing against the conservative darling, providing a high-profile, extraordinarily expensive, no-holds-barred battle over the future of the party in its most influential state. And it could potentially knock out Cruz, the runner-up in the GOP presidential sweepstakes this year, before another expected run for president in 2020.
While the scenario has captured the attention of the Texas donor class, both the state and national press, and other politicos, such a daring move by McCaul would be a surprise even to some of his boosters and home-state colleagues. And McCaul, whose Homeland Security Committee chairmanship is up in in 2019, is allowing the speculation to grow—even as he may have some other job in his sights.
“There has been interest—a buzz out there,” McCaul told National Journal. “I’ve had nothing to do with it. It’s flattering. But I’m focused on my reelection, and I want to win the White House. And that’s kind of my focus right now.
“I’d like to have a Republican in the White House and frankly, a high-level appointment,” he added.
Some of McCaul’s House colleagues seem ready to back him for Senate—and see a window of opportunity for him after Cruz promised to support the party’s nominee only to then tell the Republican National Convention to “vote your conscience” before a contemptuous crowd.
When asked if he thought McCaul was interested in running for Senate, GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas responded, “I think he should be if he’s not.”
“Michael is a very dear friend of mine, and we stick together,” added another Lone Star state colleague, Rep. Pete Sessions.
Some Texas political consultants and grassroots activists doubt that Cruz, who won the state’s presidential primary by more than 480,000 votes, is prime for an upset. They say McCaul, an 11-year veteran of the House, would face a steep climb in attempting to unite both moderate Republicans and disaffected Trumpers from his perch in Congress.
One prominent Texas GOP strategist said the “only scenario” in which Cruz would be actually vulnerable is if Trump won and made the senator a “test case for party loyalty.” In July, Trump—who is known for his temerity, unpredictability, and short attention span—threatened to spend millions of dollars to end Cruz’s career.
“I have underestimated the strength of that really conservative wing in the Republican Party so often, I’ve quit doing it,” said the strategist. “I really just don’t see any vulnerability at this point. There’s nothing in my worldview working here in Texas that makes me think that Texas goes anywhere but further right in terms of its political ideology for five, six, eight years. I just don’t see it.”
Cruz's team, meanwhile, was not interested in assessing his possible opponents.
"It's no surprise people want to speculate on elections that are years away to take up a news cycle," said Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. "Even so, Cruz won't be taking anything for granted. He is fully focused on his service to Texans and will continue to keep the promises he made to them, defending the Texas common-sense values that have defined his entire tenure in the US Senate."
Rolando Garcia, a longtime Cruz supporter and Texas conservative grassroots activist, said that the anger lingering from the convention speech would subside over time, rejecting the idea that McCaul could beat him.
“There’s a lot of establishment types who have never liked Cruz, who have had to bite their tongues because of his popularity with the grassroots,” he said. “Now they’ve kind of seized on this ... club to hit him with. And the idea that an establishment figure like Mike McCaul—like he’s going to be the champion of the grassroots against Ted Cruz? Give me a break.”
Even some of McCaul’s allies think he’s unlikely to run for Senate, raising the possibility that he’d face an easier path to other posts like the state’s Attorney General office in 2018. One Texas GOP member said that it would be a “very tough” fight for McCaul.
But if McCaul doesn’t run, Cruz will still have to deal with the immediate fallout from his choice at the Cleveland convention, which initially greeted Cruz with cheers before booing him.
Rep. Bill Flores, like other Texans contacted for this article, noted that the state GOP delegation “overwhelmingly” disagreed with the senator the morning after his convention speech. Cruz said then that he’s “not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father”—a reference to Trump mocking Heidi Cruz’s appearance and bizarrely making a conspiratorial claim linking Rafael Cruz to Lee Harvey Oswald.
Flores, however, didn’t buy that argument.
“Ted Cruz signed a document saying that he’d support the nominee,” said Flores. “And in Texas, that signature means something. To most of us it does.”