In it, but not of it. TPM DC

How Ted Cruz Irks GOP Leadership With Quiet Boosts To The Tea Party

AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

"What I have said is that I'm likely going to stay out of incumbent Republican primaries," Cruz said. "I haven't put that in concrete." The key word there is "likely."

He even refused to endorse Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who faces a very weak primary challenge from tea partier Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX).

"I am not supporting any of the senators from my party or their opponents in this year's primaries," he said when asked about Cornyn. He added, though, that that could change.

It seemed like Cruz was sending a message to the same ultra-conservative Republicans who have railed against Cornyn, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY): I'm with you. And he did so despite his role on the leadership team for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Cruz seems to be fanning flames of the so-called GOP "civil war," which establishment Republicans have been seeking to crush in primaries around the country.

Cruz's refraining from campaigning for top Republican incumbent challengers seemed to be a peace offering to establishment Republicans, especially after Cruz's mission to shut down the government over Obamacare caused the party to take a major hit in the polls.

But Cruz has actually kept a presence on the campaign trail and in anti-establishment GOP circles. Cruz quietly penned a fundraising pitch for The Madison Project, a conservative group that's boosted McConnell Challenger Matt Bevin and other tea party primary challengers.

Cruz's presence in the 2014 campaign trail goes beyond that. Tea party candidates do whatever they can to put Cruz next to their name. Dallas Tea Partier Katrina Pierson, for instance, strongly touted an endorsement from the senator's father, Rafael Cruz. Pierson, who is challenging Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), also has loudly advertised that Cruz himself has described her as "utterly fearless," a phrase Cruz uses for his favorite fellow lawmakers such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).

A former NRSC official and current Republican strategist whose clients include both tea party and establishment Republicans told TPM that Cruz might be considered "untrustworthy" by Republican leadership.

"If you're trying to help these tea party candidates and in some places actually beat incumbents," he continued, you might "lose more respect" than if it were done outright.

The strategist added that he couldn't think of a previous NRSC vice chairman who has tried to straddle both supporting the NRSC and backing those trying to unseat NRSC-supported incumbents.

"I think Sen. DeMint found out how uninviting it is to be the turd in the punchbowl in the Senate. And he's now at Heritage," the strategist added. "In this case this guy's obviously radioactive."

Publicly, the NRSC isn't going after Cruz, just the candidates who are striving to be the "next Cruz."

"Senator Cruz is one of 45 Senators that we are proud to support, defend and build a majority for. We look forward to Senator Cruz being able to fight big government and the spread of liberalism in a conservative Republican Majority next year," NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring told TPM in an email.

And Cruz denies that he's being at all divisive. At the Politico event on Thursday he said that he didn't want "to throw any Republicans under the bus" while also criticizing both Cornyn and McConnell for supporting a final vote on raising the debt ceiling.

"To be clear, it was Republican leadership that was looking to throw Republicans under the bus," Cruz said.