Cruz not taking O’Rourke lightly
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.”
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.