A few weeks ago Sen. Ted Cruz dropped a surprise in the middle of a casual policy discussion with a prominent conservative activist.
The freshman Texas senator predicted that longtime Republican attorney Ben Ginsberg would serve as his campaign lawyer should Mr. Cruz run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
The statement caught the supporter by surprise. Mr. Cruz, after all, has become one of the Senate’s most stubborn nonconformists, unafraid to buck his party’s leadership while laying out his own vision of conservatism with from-the-hip speeches that require no prepared text.
Mr. Ginsberg, on the other hand, is the quintessential establishment GOP figure, a carefully scripted campaign lawyer who has served as counsel for the likes of the Republican National Committee, the Bush-Cheney campaign and Mitt Romney’s presidential bids.
The episode related by a participant in the conversation is a not-so-subtle reminder that the first “primary” of the 2016 presidential nomination contest — the race to hire battle-tested campaign staff — is already well under way, even before the final ballots of this year’s midterm election are counted. It’s also a reminder that staff are often hired for their experience and technical expertise, and not to win a popularity contest with voters.
Mr. Cruz has already shored up his staff by hiring veteran congressional aide Paul Teller as a top Senate aide, giving him a steady hand to make sure his congressional actions don’t rock his presidential ambitions.
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The freshman Texas senator isn’t alone in lining up battle-tested staff for a possible 2016 run. Dr. Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon-turned-conservative sensation, has already announced that Houston businessman and longtime GOP activist Terry Giles would serve as his campaign chairman should he get in the race. And Dr. Carson has hired veteran fundraising and email strategist Mike Murray to oversee his digital fundraising and outreach efforts.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky also has begun building a national infrastructure for the primaries, choosing former Iowa GOP Chairman Steve Grubbs to run his efforts in the first caucus state and respected GOP strategist Mike Biundo to oversee his efforts in New England, including the first primary state of New Hampshire.
Along with securing staff, the 2016 hopefuls also get to use this year’s election to earn chits from politicians. Mr. Cruz, Mr. Paul and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, have campaigned and raised money tirelessly for their party’s 2014 candidates.
Such groundwork is common for any White House hopeful.
But the early 2016 GOP field has three candidates in Mr. Paul, Mr. Cruz and Dr. Carson whose appeal has been built on being Washington outsiders willing to buck, shun and even ridicule the establishment in Washington. The art of collecting chits and hiring staffers can, at times, run contrary to those storylines.
Mr. Paul, for instance, was forced early this year to throw his support behind fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell in a tough Senate primary against a more conservative challenger, and later in Mr. McConnell’s re-election race against Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. As Senate minority leader, Mr. McConnell at times has tried to cut deals with the White House and Senate Democrats that over the years have alienated some conservative activists. Mr. Paul’s support initially generated some rumblings among anti-establishment activists.
Mr. Cruz recently transferred $250,000 in funds from his political operations to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Republican Senate establishment. And Mr. Cruz’s potential courtship of Mr. Ginsberg has the potential to create its own discontent.
Some grass-roots conservative activists are still angry at Mr. Ginsberg for what they see as his efforts to restrain their access and influence to the establishment. Mr. Ginsberg, for instance, engineered a power play on behalf of Mr. Romney at the 2012 Republican presidential nominating convention, persuading delegates to adopt rules changes that transferred power from the primary and caucus voters in the states to the putative presidential nominee at convention time.
For many religious and social conservatives, Mr. Ginsberg’s biggest transgression is his 2013 signing of a brief sent to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage, a policy Mr. Cruz opposes.
“Ginsberg’s work has left a bad taste in the mouths of not just newly active Republicans, but in many GOP conservatives who have been fighting these battles for a very long time,” said Carolyn McLarty of Oklahoma, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee’s Resolutions Committee.
Morton Blackwell, a Republican National Committee member from Virginia, added, “I would consider that very unfortunate” if Mr. Cruz brought Mr. Ginsberg aboard for a 2016 race.
In fact, a Ginsberg-Cruz alliance in 2016 wouldn’t be that far-fetched given the two men’s history. Mr. Cruz helped George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign assemble the legal all-star team of future Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, superattorney Mike Garvin, future Solicitor General Ted Olson and Mr. Ginsberg to help win the Florida recount dispute.
And Mr. Cruz hired Mr. Ginsberg to be his campaign attorney for his successful 2012 run for the Senate.
Right now, Mr. Cruz already has a campaign finance attorney, the well-regarded Washington lawyer Cleta Mitchell. Aides said they had not heard about the Ginsberg anecdote and know of no hiring yet, though they left a future door open.
Cruz spokesman Catherine Frazier said in an interview that her boss and Mr. Ginsberg “are good friends. They have worked together in the past, and it is certainly possible they could work together again. But we have made no hires to that end.”
Mr. Ginsberg did not return repeated calls to his office seeking comment.
In the end, veteran campaign observers say candidates don’t hire staff to win popularity contests but rather to get the best talent on the market for each critical job in a campaign. On that front, Mr. Ginsberg is regarded as a campaign finance legal eagle.
Mississippi Republican National Committee member Henry Barbour last year called Mr. Ginsberg “the go-to lawyer for Republican federal campaigns. Anyone running for president would do well to have him on their team.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another 2016 hopeful, recently hired Mr. Ginsberg as part of his defense team against a state criminal indictment that claims Mr. Perry had abused his powers as governor.
“I wouldn’t think courting Ginsberg poses a problem for Cruz,” said Springfield, Illinois, attorney Terry Campo, a former Reagan administration official. “It shows Cruz doesn’t intend to be regarded as a fringe candidate.”
Mr. Campo called the idea of Mr. Cruz eventually making Mr. Ginsberg his 2016 campaign lawyer “a shrewd tactical move. It heads off having Ginsberg, one of the top convention rules people, working the rules against Cruz,” said Mr. Campo. “Ben is one of the top campaign finance lawyers the party has.”