Inside the abandoned plans of Ted Cruz's super PACs

Willie Grace | 11/9/2015, 1:51 p.m.
Ted Cruz enjoys millions of dollars in super PAC money but he may have to wait until after the first ...
Sen. Ted Cruz on Government Shutdown

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Ted Cruz enjoys millions of dollars in super PAC money but he may have to wait until after the first round of primaries before he can reap the benefits of that unlimited cash.

The Keep the Promise set -- four super PACs which have collected more than $38 million to independently support Cruz's surging bid -- is struggling to show signs of life that can satisfy budding external pressure from both the official campaign and other Cruz allies.

Keep the Promise II, the group funded with $10 million from Houston investor Toby Neugebauer, has not reserved any television time and has no plans to air advertisements until March or April, according to a leader of the super PACs, who requested anonymity to outline internal thinking in detail.

The group was intended to be the main super PAC that purchased television spots, while the other two groups focused on radio and digital advertising. But right after Neugebauer, a controversial figure in some Cruz circles, delivered a PowerPoint presentation to Cruz donors during an exclusive campaign retreat at The Broadmoor resort this summer in Colorado, he abruptly pulled back on a planned major television campaign.

The buy, which would have been for a substantial series of 9,600 60-second biographical spots, or a biopic, across South Carolina, a critical stop coming as the first southern state after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. The source said the sudden decision came after a non-profit affiliated with Marco Rubio's campaign made its own purchase, jacking up television rates statewide. Other sources dispute that, saying the abandoned TV campaign was scuttled by legal questions about the perception of coordinating with the campaign.

The super PACs are staffed in part by a few individuals with no formal political experience, including Neugebauer, who has been the groups' main fundraiser and formerly its chief executive officer -- in addition to one of its lead donors. The groups have only recently begun hiring their first political professionals, including a new professional fundraiser: Campbell Smith, a finance official at the National Rifle Association, the super PACs confirmed to CNN.

The ditched buy is at the heart of the dispute between the campaign and the super PAC -- a dispute that spilled out into the public this week, with several campaign advisers telling Politico that they want to see Keep the Promise purchase advertising time immediately. Campaigns and super PACs frequently read one another's messages in the press with a fine-toothed comb to learn thinking that they cannot legally directly share with one another.

It's a reflection of the divided campaign finance world, where super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of cash (donations must still be reported to the Federal Election Commission), but the catch is that campaign and super PAC officials aren't allowed to coordinate. Neugebauer's pitch at The Broadmoor came without Cruz staffers in the room, for instance, a donor said.

And amid increasing questions about the super PAC, campaign officials are coming to the defense of Neugebauer, who left his role at the super PAC in a shake-up, and are praising his ability to incentivize two more eight-digit donations with a $10 million check of his own.