Veterans of Ted Cruz's 2016 campaign sign up to help DeSantis beat Trump

Former top aides to the Texas senator are gearing up for a fight that's already reminiscent of the GOP's brutal 2016 primary.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to the crowd at an event in Staten Island, N.Y.
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“No, no, no,” Republican operative Jeff Roe told Yahoo News earlier this month when asked if he would be joining the campaign-in-waiting of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But three weeks after calling it “fake news,” Roe — who served as the chief strategist for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign — announced he was, in fact, signing up with a pro-DeSantis super-PAC.

Roe is now one of several former Cruz lieutenants who are gearing up for a fight that’s already reminiscent of the GOP’s brutal 2016 primary. That contest eventually came down to two men: Cruz, a 40-something conservative policy wonk and Harvard-educated lawyer, and Donald Trump, the erstwhile real estate magnate and reality TV host.

Trump, of course, wound up winning the nomination, but not before he and his allies launched a scorched-earth attack on Cruz and his family. Trump branded Cruz “Lyin’ Ted”; amplified vulgar attacks on his wife, Heidi; and toyed with the false notion that Cruz’s father had somehow played a part in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Without any evidence, Trump also accused the Texas senator of winning the 2016 Iowa caucuses through “fraud” and said Cruz’s victory there should have been “nullified” as a result.

Former President Donald Trump walks down a red carpet outside an airport, with his private plane and rows of American flags in the background.
Former President Donald Trump arrives at a rally at the Waco Regional Airport in Texas on March 25. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Cruz, once he lost the nomination, fell in line behind Trump despite all that, quickly becoming one of his key allies in the Senate. Some of his top aides, like pollster Kellyanne Conway, likewise followed suit and signed on with Trump.

But several major figures from Cruz’s old operation have now gravitated to DeSantis, Trump’s would-be top competitor in the 2024 primary.

Ken Cuccinelli, the longtime Republican activist who prayed with Cruz’s father on the convention floor in 2016 just hours before Trump cemented his nomination? Check.

David Polyansky, the data wizard with strong grassroots organizing skills and ties to Iowa critical to any serious presidential bid? Check.

Cuccinelli, Polyansky and Roe are now with Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super-PAC. All three have extensive experience in Republican politics, with Cuccinelli eventually joining the Department of Homeland Security under Trump. And all three have the rare experience of having already worked for a top Trump target in a Republican primary.

The question now is whether they can draw on that experience — the failures, the successes, the lessons learned — in order to beat Trump next year. Their time in the trenches fighting for Cruz could be all that more valuable as the former president attacks DeSantis, another 40-something conservative policy wonk and Harvard-educated lawyer, in explicitly personal terms.

Ken Cuccinelli testifies at a Senate hearing.
Ken Cuccinelli testifies at a Senate hearing in 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The fact that a number of Cruz veterans have headed to DeSantis has caught the attention of Trump advisers, and the former president himself may have taken notice as well. “Ron DeSanctimonious’ Political Consultants are failing to rescue his sinking ship,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social account the day after the Roe news broke, using his favored nickname for the Florida governor. “He can’t move without them, it takes him forever to make a decision, and they’re charging him and his Globalist Donors a fortune.”

A top official with Never Back Down told Yahoo News that the group also includes a number of former Trump campaign staffers and prominent Republicans not associated with Cruz.

“Just as Gov. DeSantis built a diverse coalition to win a landslide reelection in 2022, this is a team that brings together diverse campaign, political, grassroots and Hill experience,” Chris Jankowski, executive director of Never Back Down, told Yahoo News.

“The way you win is by bringing the best players available to your team, and that is exactly what Never Back Down is doing. 2024 is not 2016 — it’s a new day in the Republican Party.”

In the years since 2016, Roe has remained a sought-after Republican consultant. Most recently, he was a key player in Glenn Youngkin’s successful run for Virginia governor in 2021. Youngkin’s victory was seen as a blueprint for how Republicans could still win in Democratic-leaning states, in part because of how Youngkin was able to capitalize on the culture-war issues that Trump prioritizes while still keeping Trump at a distance.

Republican strategist Jeff Roe with Glenn Youngkin in November 2021.
Republican strategist Jeff Roe, left, with Glenn Youngkin in November 2021, just before Youngkin's election as governor of Virginia. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Shortly after Youngkin’s victory, Roe met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, fueling speculation that the former Cruz staffer would wind up working for the former president’s comeback bid. But it wasn’t long before rumors began that Roe had his eyes on working for DeSantis instead.

DeSantis has yet to formally announce that he’s running for president even as he behaves more and more like a candidate, weighing in on foreign policy as he tours the country and refines his pitch to voters. He’s aiming at a May or June launch date for his campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.

But although DeSantis is still technically on the sidelines, at least one member of Congress has already endorsed him: Texas Rep. Chip Roy, a leader of the House GOP’s right flank — and a former top aide to Cruz.