Ted Cruz's leaked donor docs show how money in politics really works

  • A reporter found documents that appear to show details of Sen. Ted Cruz's donor meetings.

  • They show how rich donors can get serious face time with influential lawmakers.

  • It's not just Cruz — lots of politicians in both parties do this.

On Tuesday, the reporter Pablo Manríquez discovered a collection of documents that appeared to belong to Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign.

The documents, discovered in a food kiosk on the first floor of the US Capitol, appeared to include information about a series of meetings between the Texas Republican and campaign donors.

The details of those meetings — including the requests Cruz is expected to make of donors, the amount of time each donor gets with the senator, and a curious reference to "outside efforts" — offer a rare window into how money in politics really works in America.

That's true not just for Cruz — a 2016 presidential candidate who faces a competitive reelection fight against Democratic Rep. Colin Allred this fall — but for many American politicians in both parties who rely on big donors.

Spokespeople for Cruz did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The details of the documents

The documents included information about several midweek meetings, the first of which was a dinner with eight lobbyists and PAC officials at The Capital Grille in Washington, DC.

Each individual at the dinner had pledged between $1,000 and $2,500 to Cruz's campaign, according to the documents. The Texas senator's briefing materials included professional biographies of each person, along with a bold-face description of which special interest they represented.

On Wednesday, Cruz appeared to have six meetings with major donors in New York City — like many Americans, senators got the day off for Juneteenth.

For each of those New York meetings, Cruz was supplied with detailed biographies of his interlocutors, a list of their recent political contributions, and directions on how much money to ask for.

One GOP operative who's managed several outside groups in Senate races, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said there was "nothing out of the ordinary" with the documents.

"It's obviously embarrassing to have it out there because your donors trust you to be responsible with their information," the operative said.

Donors get a lot of access in exchange for money

We all probably know it, but it's striking to see on paper: Money can buy you access.

For the price of as low as $1,000, you and seven other people can have dinner with Cruz on a weekday night just a stone's throw from the Capitol.

Cruz is the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, which, among other things, deals with transportation and telecommunications issues. Sure enough, several of the attendees were from groups that have financial interests in those fields, including the telecommunications firm Ericsson and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.

There's no guarantee that the Texas senator would do your bidding just because you gave him a couple of thousand dollars, but he may be more sympathetic to your viewpoint if you're given the time to offer it over drinks and steak.

Meanwhile, Cruz's Wednesday in New York was stacked — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — with more intimate, one-on-one meetings with megadonors, offering a look at just how much time fundraising can take.

Those meetings, held in wealthy donors' homes or other glamorous Manhattan restaurants, each lasted from 45 minutes to two hours.

On paper, donations are capped at $6,600. In reality, you can go way higher than that.

Under federal-campaign-finance law, there are fairly tight limits on how much money individuals are allowed to contribute to political campaigns.

The idea is to limit the degree of influence that one person can have over a candidate: The more a politician owes a single person for campaign contributions, the more indebted they are.

This year, it's $6,600 — $3,300 for the primary and $3,300 for the general election.

But in practice, that number can go way higher, as the documents show. For some meetings, Cruz is directed to ask a single donor whether they would contribute $119,200 to his race.

As Saurav Ghosh, the director of federal-campaign-finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center, wrote on X, that's because it's really a donation to several different groups working to reelect Cruz, including his own campaign, his "leadership PAC," the Texas GOP, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Also, if your spouse donates too, you can double that sum.

Candidates can't legally coordinate with super PACS — but they can get kind of close

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising portion of the documents is a line included in briefing materials for several of the New York megadonor meetings: "Ask [donor] to talk to your team about outside efforts."

In this case, the phrase "outside efforts" likely refers to super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations but are legally barred from coordinating with or donating directly to politicians' campaigns.

Cruz is already in some hot water over a financial arrangement between his podcast and his super PAC. But the GOP operative who's worked on outside groups before says the arrangement is likely within the bounds of the law.

"Candidates are prohibited from soliciting contributions. Candidates are not prohibited from teeing up conversations," the operative said. "The critical thing is: No explicit ask and no explicit dollar amounts being discussed."

Ghosh, the campaign-finance expert, made a similar point.

"Ask [donor] to talk to your team about outside efforts isn't a 'solicitation' under federal campaign finance law," Ghosh wrote on X.

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