Cruz not tak­ing O’Rourke lightly

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Dave Mont­gomery CON­TRIB­U­TOR

Since en­ter­ing Texas pol­i­tics six years ago, Ted Cruz has drawn na­tional at­ten­tion as a po­lit­i­cal gi­ant killer, tea party cham­pion, Se­nate fire­brand and Don­ald Trump’s last ri­val in the bat­tle for the 2016 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

Now, with the ap­proach of the 2018 midterm elec­tions, the ju­nior sen­a­tor from Texas is cast in yet an­other role — that of a threat­ened in­cum­bent.

In a race that ini­tially was ex­pected to eas­ily re­turn Cruz to an­other six years in the Se­nate, he in­stead finds him­self un­der at­tack from a pop­u­lar Demo­cratic chal­lenger who has raised $61.7 mil­lion in red-state Texas, nearly twice as much as the $35 mil­lion raised by Cruz.

The moun­tain of cash and Beto O’Rourke’s rise have in­stilled Texas Democrats with the hope that maybe they can win a statewide elec­tion for the first time in nearly a quar­ter-cen­tury.

Though one re­cent poll showed Cruz with a nine­point lead, the lin­ger­ing fear of a Texas up­set among Repub­li­cans has served as a wake-up call to stoke fundrais­ing and rouse the troops.

“We’re tak­ing it very se­ri­ously,” Cruz said Thurs­day in a 50-minute in­ter­view at his cam­paign head­quar­ters. “I’m con­fi­dent we’re go­ing to win this race, but part of the rea­son we’re go­ing to win is that we’re not tak­ing it for granted.”

Sig­nal­ing the high stakes for the cam­paign, Trump will be in Hous­ton on Mon­day for a Cruz rally at the Toy­ota Cen­ter.

The 6:30 p.m. event coin-

cides with the start of early vot­ing in the Nov. 6 elec­tion.

Trump and Cruz may have pep­pered each other with per­sonal in­sults dur­ing their fight for the 2016 Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion, but Trump now re­lies on Cruz as an im­por­tant Capi­tol Hill ally in ad­vanc­ing con­ser­va­tive pri­or­i­ties and the pres­i­dent’s agenda.

For Cruz, a vic­tory over O’Rourke, a three-term con­gress­man from El Paso, is cru­cial to per­pet­u­at­ing his brand as a lead­ing con­ser­va­tive and pre­serv­ing a po­lit­i­cal base deemed es­sen­tial for pos­si­bly an­other run at the pres­i­dency.

The out­come of the Texas bat­tle also could help de­ter­mine whether Repub­li­cans re­tain their nar­row con­trol of the Se­nate or sur­ren­der the 100-mem­ber up­per cham­ber to Democrats.

De­liv­er­ing for the GOP

As his cam­paign team manned the phones on the 12th floor of the Phoenix Tower near the Hous­ton Gal­le­ria, Cruz, 47, waved off any dis­cus­sion of a fu­ture pres­i­den­tial run and fo­cused on ac­com­plish­ments in the Se­nate, his race against O'Rourke, his al­liance with the pres­i­dent and other po­lit­i­cal top­ics.

“My fo­cus is on the U.S. Se­nate,” Cruz re­sponded when asked if he still har­bors pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions. “And I feel blessed to have the op­por­tu­nity to play a real role bring­ing Repub­li­cans to­gether to de­liver on our prom­ises.”

Cruz is the first His­panic from Texas to serve in the U.S. Se­nate. Dur­ing the first four years of his six-year term, he of­ten was de­picted as a trou­ble­some out­lier who fre­quently caused headaches for Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, No. 2 in the lead­er­ship.

Cruz staged a 21-hour fil­i­buster against Oba­macare in 2013, his first year in the Se­nate, de­liv­er­ing what be­came known as the “Green Eggs and Ham” speech after he read a bed­time pas­sage from Dr. Seuss to his two daugh­ters who watched the per­for­mance on TV. In a speech on the Se­nate floor in July 2015, he ac­cused McCon­nell of “telling a flat-out lie” to col­leagues.

“If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Se­nate, and the trial was in the Se­nate, no­body would con­vict you,” said U.S. Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., who also was a Cruz pres­i­den­tial ri­val in 2016.

An­other fel­low Repub­li­can, for­mer U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, once de­scribed Cruz as “Lu­cifer in the flesh.”

But a new ver­sion of Cruz has emerged since the Repub­li­cans’ punch­ing bag — Pres­i­dent Barack Obama — was re­placed by Trump in 2017. Se­nate lead­ers say Cruz is now a re­li­able team player who has a pro­duc­tive work­ing re­la­tion­ship with fel­low se­na­tors as well as the pres­i­dent.

“Both Ted and I would ad­mit that our re­la­tion­ship started off a lit­tle bumpy ob­vi­ously when he de­cided to run for pres­i­dent and he had all the Democrats and Pres­i­dent Obama, but also the lead­er­ship, in his crosshairs,” Cornyn said.

With the pres­i­den­tial race be­hind him, Cornyn said, Cruz has “re­fo­cused his at­ten­tion on be­ing a good sen­a­tor” and works closely with his Texas col­league as well as the rest of McCon­nell’s lead­er­ship team.

Don Ste­wart, McCon­nell’s deputy chief of staff, de­scribes Cruz as “a key mem­ber of the team” who has re­solved his dif­fer­ences with the ma­jor­ity leader.

Cruz said the trou­ble-mak­ing im­age from his ear­lier years in the Se­nate never was an ac­cu­rate por­trayal.

“The first sev­eral years in the Se­nate, we saw a lot of me­dia car­i­ca­tures that painted me as a wildeyed bomb-thrower,” Cruz said. “Those car­i­ca­tures weren’t true then and they’re not true now.”

But he ac­knowl­edged things “were very dif­fer­ent” dur­ing his first four years when he con­sid­ered his mis­sion to be “do­ing what­ever I could to stop bad poli­cies from be­ing im­ple­mented that would harm the peo­ple of Texas.”

Cruz back­ers mo­bi­lized

Even some Repub­li­cans ac­knowl­edge the GOP in­cum­bent is not guar­an­teed a vic­tory in a race that the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port deemed a “toss-up” in mid-Septem­ber.

O’Rourke, a pho­to­genic for­mer El Paso City Coun­cil mem­ber who comes from a wealthy fam­ily, has cam­paigned in all 254 coun­ties with a pro­gres­sive mes­sage and prom­ises to work with Repub­li­cans and Democrats for the good of Texas.

The tenor of the race has be­come in­creas­ingly acer­bic with the ap­proach of early vot­ing.

In their sec­ond de­bate last week, O’Rourke came out swing­ing and reprised one of Trump’s in­sults against Cruz by call­ing him “Lyin’ Ted.”

Cruz, in turn, has as­sailed O’Rourke for lib­eral be­liefs that he calls out of step with Texas, and ham­mer­ing O’Rourke for say­ing he fa­vors im­peach­ing the pres­i­dent, which Cruz said would fuel a “par­ti­san cir­cus” in Wash­ing­ton.

O’Rourke’s mas­tery at rais­ing money — more than $38 mil­lion poured into the cam­paign in the third quar­ter — both alarmed and mo­ti­vated ma­jor Cruz donors.

“I as­sumed he would have an easy re-elec­tion,” said David McIntosh, pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton­based Club for Growth, a con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion that helped fuel Cruz’s come-from-be­hind vic­tory over Texas Lt. Gov. David De­whurst in 2012.

But after an in­ter­nal poll sug­gested Cruz was vul­ner­a­ble, McIntosh said, the or­ga­ni­za­tion ral­lied with an out­pour­ing of do­na­tions that so far have amounted to $254,000 for Cruz’s re-elec­tion; a separate Club for Growth “su­per” po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee has spent an ad­di­tional $1 mil­lion for pro-Cruz ads.

“That kicked us into high gear,” said McIntosh, a for­mer In­di­ana con­gress­man. “Hon­estly, we re­al­ized that if Ted Cruz were to lose the Se­nate race, it would be a huge set­back for Club for Growth, to the con­ser­va­tive move­ment, and that moved it from be­ing an easy win to our No. 1 pri­or­ity.”

Robert Mar­ling, chair­man of Wood­for­est Na­tional Bank in The Wood­lands, had a sim­i­lar re­ac­tion.

A self-made ex­ec­u­tive who started out as a bank mail­room worker and ul­ti­mately be­came head of a 700-branch bank­ing net­work, Mar­ling be­came one of Cruz’s pi­o­neer sup­port­ers after the two men, ac­com­pa­nied by their wives, met over din­ner at Amerigo’s Grille in The Wood­lands be­fore the 2012 Se­nate race.

“Ted was very much a long shot,” Mar­ling said in re­call­ing his ini­tial im­pres­sions of the young at­tor­ney. “I was one of those be­liev­ers be­fore he had a chance.”

Like McIntosh, “I was hop­ing I wouldn’t have to do much” in the re-elec­tion cam­paign, he said, but after do­na­tions be­gan “fly­ing in” to fund Cruz’s op­po­nent, Mar­ling went to work to “make sure that Texas stays red.”

JFK as­sas­si­na­tion al­le­ga­tion

Per­haps Cruz’s most dra­matic con­ver­sion — and one Democrats have ex­ploited as a cam­paign is­sue — is his rap­proche­ment with the pres­i­dent after Trump, as a can­di­date, dis­played an un­flat­ter­ing pic­ture of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and im­plied that Cruz’s Cuban im­mi­grant fa­ther may have had a tie to the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion.

At the time, Cruz was out­raged and re­fused to im­me­di­ately en­dorse Trump at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion, draw­ing boos from del­e­gates.

Cruz the can­di­date re­galed Trump with a stream of put­downs: “patho­log­i­cal liar,” “ut­terly amoral,” “nar­cis­sist,” “bully,” “se­rial phi­lan­derer.”

But Cruz says their en­mity ended shortly after Trump won the pres­i­dency.

In the week after the elec­tion, Cruz re­called, he flew to New York for a four-hour meet­ing with Trump and his key strate­gists.

“I told him I wanted to do ev­ery­thing hu­manly pos­si­ble to de­liver on our prom­ises,” Cruz said.

Cruz also re­calls he spent 45 min­utes dur­ing a ride on Air Force One try­ing to con­vince the pres­i­dent to pull out of the Paris cli­mate ac­cord.

A day after Trump with­drew the United States from the 2015 agree­ment, Cruz said, he re­ceived a call on his cell­phone while stand­ing in the cab line at Ne­wark Air­port.

“Well, Ted, I did it,” Cruz quoted the pres­i­dent as say­ing.

Cruz also was a Se­nate leader on the pres­i­dent’s tax plan and was in­stru­men­tal in win­ning ap­proval for re­peal­ing a con­tro­ver­sial Oba­macare pro­vi­sion re­quir­ing most Amer­i­cans to have health care.

As chair­man of the Se­nate Sub­com­mit­tee on Space, Sci­ence and Com­pet­i­tive­ness, Cruz has worked with the ad­min­is­tra­tion to ad­vance space ex­plo­ration and pro­tect the Lyn­don B. John­son Space Cen­ter in Hous­ton, which pro­vides more than $2 mil­lion a year to the Texas econ­omy.

The Repub­li­can por­trayal of Cruz is starkly dif­fer­ent from that of Democrats, who are wag­ing a cam­paign to kick him out of the Se­nate.

The Fire Ted Cruz PAC, chaired by Dal­las at­tor­ney Marc Stan­ley, de­picts Cruz as a “self­ish, mean divi­sive per­son who isn’t some­one you want to have a beer with … (he’s) some­one you want to pour your beer on.”

Cruz’s co­zi­ness with the pres­i­dent has pro­vided fod­der for Democrats to mock his “Tough as Texas” cam­paign theme.

“That’s a sur­ren­der­ing of dig­nity,” said Demo­crat Matt An­gle, head of the Lone Star Project, which cri­tiques Repub­li­can poli­cies.

A so­cial me­dia ad di­rected by Os­car-nom­i­nated Austin film­maker Richard Lin­klater de­picts an el­derly man un­load­ing on Cruz’s be­hav­ior.

“I mean, come on, if some­body called my wife a dog and said my daddy was in on the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion, I wouldn't be kiss­ing their ass,” said the ac­tor, wear­ing a cap and clutch­ing a cup of cof­fee. “You stick a fin­ger in their chest and give them a few choice words.”

Cruz said he would “not go down into the gut­ter” to re­spond to the crit­i­cism, which he de­scribed as Demo­cratic “pol­i­tics as usual.”

With the 2018 elec­tion clos­ing in, many of those who have watched Cruz through­out his rise in pol­i­tics say they have lit­tle doubt the Texas sen­a­tor also has his eye on the more dis­tant fu­ture — an­other run for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

“You think he’s go­ing to breathe to­mor­row? Of course, he’s go­ing to run for pres­i­dent,” says Garry Mauro, a long­time Texas Demo­cratic leader who chaired Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in Texas.

But no one ex­pects Cruz to run in 2020, when the pres­i­dent pre­sum­ably would sweep the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion.

“As­sum­ing he is re-elected, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if some of his sup­port­ers start talk­ing about 2024,” says Mark McK­in­non, who was an ad­viser to for­mer Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush and co­hosts “The Cir­cus” on Show­time.

Still a tea party star

Much of Cruz’s core sup­port still comes from the grass­roots move­ment that pro­pelled him from less than 2 per­cent in the polls to his un­ex­pected tri­umph over the Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment in 2012.

At least 500 sup­port­ers, and pos­si­bly more, turned out re­cently for a Cruz rally at a steak house and sa­loon in Mont­gomery. Throngs of Cruz fans pressed their way to the front to pose for pic­tures with the sen­a­tor after the speech.

Todd Keller, 52, pas­tor of the Cow­boy Fel­low­ship of Ag­gie Land in Col­lege Sta­tion, showed up with his wife and two grown daugh­ters, all pro­claim­ing their in­ten­tions to send Cruz to an­other term in the Se­nate.

“I’ve al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated his con­sti­tu­tional con­ser­vatism and that ev­ery­thing lines up ac­cord­ing to the Con­sti­tu­tion,” said Keller, who wore a beige cow­boy hat, jeans and scuffed boots. “I think if all our elected of­fi­cials would pay more at­ten­tion to the Con­sti­tu­tion, we’d be in a bet­ter sit­u­a­tion.”

While the tea party helped make Ted Cruz, the sen­a­tor also helped make the tea party, a move­ment built on a con­tempt for al­leged gov­ern­ment over­reach and for run­away spend­ing.

Cruz’s vic­tory show­ered the tea party with more na­tional at­ten­tion and helped it ad­vance into a po­tent Texas po­lit­i­cal force that has racked up a pro­gres­sion of vic­to­ries over mod­er­ate GOP in­cum­bents, shift­ing the Repub­li­can party fur­ther to the right.

Both Cruz and Trump have tow­er­ing ap­proval rat­ings among Texas Repub­li­cans, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts and poll­sters.

While some grass­roots vot­ers, in ran­dom in­ter­views, say they’re a bit un­com­fort­able with Trump’s tweet­fests and flam­boy­ant un­pre­dictabil­ity, they also ap­plaud his suc­cess at re­duc­ing taxes, rein­ing in reg­u­la­tions and talk­ing tough with for­eign lead­ers.

Julie McCarty of Grapevine, pres­i­dent and founder of the North­east Tar­rant Tea Party in the Fort Worth-Dal­las re­gion, said Cruz still is very much a tea party dar­ling.

“Yes, ab­so­lutely,” she said, de­scrib­ing how she has been in­un­dated with phone calls ask­ing about get­ting yard signs or sup­port­ing the can­di­date.

“I just posted on Face­book a few min­utes ago that I can­not take calls all day long for Ted Cruz,” she said. “I mean ev­ery­body in the tea party is sup­port­ing Ted Cruz.”

Pho­tos by Marvin Pfeif­fer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Sen. Ted Cruz ar­rives at the Old San Fran­cisco Steak House. He was there to ad­dress sup­port­ers who’d watched his sec­ond de­bate with Rep. Beto O’Rourke, which was broad­cast from San An­to­nio.

Cruz speaks to the crowd from the bar at the steak house. With the sen­a­tor were his wife, Heidi, and their daugh­ters, Car­o­line and Cather­ine.

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