For days now, political obsessives and the national media have been fixated on the race of the moment: the stalemate in the Pennsylvania Senate Republican primary between Dr. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick. Superficially, it’s exactly the sort of delicious stampede that the media delights in. Both men are handsomely wealthy and professionally credentialled, neither is really from Pennsylvania, and both appear entirely uncomfortable fondling the various culture war hot buttons that modern Republicans must push in elections. There’s also the attendant curiosities, such as the fact that McCormick is married to former Trump administration official and Goldman executive, Dina Powell; the fact that he hired former Trump homies Hope Hicks and Cliff Sims; and that Trump, after McCormick hired his pals and genuflected at Mar-a-Lago, ended up endorsing Oz instead.
D.C. insiders, however, have larger curiosities about this race. McCormick, after all, is advised by Jeff Roe, the long-time Ted Cruz consiglieri, who rose to mega prominence of late for engineering Glenn Youngkin’s PG-13 MAGA win in Virginia. Roe, as I recently reported, appears to be the most coveted advisor for any Republican with presidential aspirations in 2024, such as Cruz or DeSantis, with whom he is also close. But in a curious twist, Roe appears to have sent signals that he might be willing to go over their heads and work with Trump. Ironically, these insiders are telling me that Roe’s success with McCormick—whom, of course, Trump did not endorse—will ultimately determine his value to Trump.
Here’s the short of it: After Roe’s client Josh Mandel lost in the Ohio G.O.P. Senate primary to the Peter Thiel-backed and Trump-endorsed candidate J.D. Vance, Roe called Trump to shower praise on him. He apparently told Trump, as Bob Costa reported, that Vance was “dead” without his endorsement. Other Trump aides have recently caught on to Roe’s obsequiousness to Trump and have interpreted it as a play, naturally, to run his 2024 campaign. These aides, of course, have their backs up against Trump’s reciprocal interest in Roe, as they’ve built their business models on access to Trump and the power of his endorsements for their clients.
While some politicos might have interpreted Roe’s defiant tweet that McCormick would eventually prevail in Pennsylvania, sent this morning and shared many times with Trump, as a dig against Trump, others might recognize that Roe is just echoing Trump’s chest-thumping love language. In fact, he is quite literally reciprocating Trump’s statement on Truth Social that Oz should just declare victory before the results are in. It’s the sort of bizarre potential mating call that befits these strange times.
Roe, newly svelte and seemingly ready for the professional opportunities that await, surely knows that Trump is aware of his C.V. While Mandel lost to Vance in Ohio, Roe’s client, Jim Pillen, won the Nebraska gubernatorial primary against the Trump-backed choice, Charles Herbster, only days later. Some in Trump’s inner circle say that Roe causes too much trouble for Trump by fighting until the bitter end with clients who aren’t bestowed with Trump’s endorsement, but he may actually ultimately win Trump over with his bravado. “If you’re against him and beat him, then he thinks of you as a winner,” the source said of Trump’s general selection criteria.
Ambitious political consultants, like Roe, have begun to style themselves less as dogged cornermen who sweatily push one campaign through a season than as portfolio managers who simultaneously oversee a panoply of political operations, and are always making new relationships. In this regard, it doesn’t really matter that Roe’s most recent turn on the national stage was running Ted Cruz’s ill-fated campaign in 2016. Nor does it matter that the remarkable upset victory he achieved with Youngkin now appears aberrant, if not downright flukish (depending on what happens with McCormick), in the current political environment. D.C. is a lot like the NFL, in which you see tons of former coaches being recycled regardless of their track record. Having performed the job of running a presidential campaign is often the main prerequisite for doing it again.
Of course, you only get to pick one candidate per cycle. While Trump decides whether or not he is running in 2024, Roe will have to keep Cruz, his long-time friend and client, and DeSantis, a former client and fundraising powerhouse with a hefty $100 million political war chest, at bay. And for Roe, the second-order calculation is also complicated. Roe’s unique talent is the ability to both operate politically and make the trains run on time. While DeSantis is the well-heeled darling of the G.O.P., he is famously prickly and dismissive of his staff, relying largely on the advice of his wife, Casey. Even with a powerhouse like Roe, it’s unclear whether he could cultivate or maintain the sort of brain trust needed for a meaningful presidential run. Roe might have a much easier time picking up where he left off with the Cruz campaign, but he’s got his own significant challenges.
So much of Cruz’s 2016 appeal, after all, was that he was the anti-Trump: a conservative idealogue, who was raised through the Federalist society, and played meaningful lip service to the evangelical audience. His candidacy appealed to voters whose hearts pumped for the second Reagan Revolution and appreciated Cruz’s firebrand personality, even if he had all the charm of an icicle. But Cruz’s discipline as a debater was betrayed by his own political oscillations. For the last few years, he publicly kowtowed to Trump and actively advocated to overturn Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.
Without Roe, Cruz could be lost. Some of his biggest supporters have splintered off, including 2016 campaign chairman, Chad Sweet, and his former chief of staff, Chip Roy, now a member of Congress. “I think after ‘16 he lost his identity, I don’t think he knows who he is anymore,” said a former Cruz acolyte. “He doesn’t know who he wants to be.” This person continued. “He’s conflicted between his principles and position. It’s weakened his brand, his lack of ability to take stances on anything.” Another former aide countered that the dissidents aren’t needed this time around: “You need new blood anyway.”
DeSantis, who is younger, might be better positioned if Roe breaks for Trump. But it’s not like DeSantis has exactly engendered much loyalty either. Many of his former aides are so traumatized from working with him that they’ve created an informal support group. Either way, neither of these guys are running if Trump does. And both almost certainly will, if he doesn’t. As of now, it’s a good time to be Jeff Roe.