Ted Cruz is Here to Remind You That He’s a Tough Texan
As he ramps up his re-election effort, the country’s least favorite U.S. Senator is still the odds-on favorite.
On a gloomy Monday afternoon, Senator Ted Cruz rolled up to a campaign event at a farm 20 miles outside Waco in a gleaming white Ford pickup truck. He hopped down from the passenger seat wearing his usual campaign uniform: cowboy boots, blue jeans, a dress shirt and a blue blazer.
It’s been nearly two years since Cruz, who was the last man standing between Donald J. Trump and the GOP nomination, ended his 2016 presidential bid. But as Cruz walked over to the stump — a trailer, in this case — and began his speech, he made clear exactly why he and the rest of his diehard conservative base aren’t too heartbroken about his loss to a foul-mouthed, philandering real estate mogul from Manhattan who lobbed vicious personal attacks at Cruz and his family on the campaign trail.
“It is April of 2018,” Cruz pronounced, pausing for dramatic effect, “and Hillary Clinton is not the president of the United States.” The crowd of about 100 farmers, ranchers and other Cruz loyalists erupted in cheers. “And Neil Gorsuch is a Supreme Court justice. … Elections have consequences.”
The campaign stop, held in tandem with the Texas Farm Bureau’s AGFUND (which used the opportunity to endorse him), was part of a three-day re-election campaign tour that took him through a dozen cities around the state. The journey included a launch party at the Redneck Country Club, his political homebase in the Houston suburb of Stafford, a trip to the Rio Grande Valley to condemn illegal immigration and pick up an endorsement from the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents federal border agents, and stops in San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth and the Panhandle to round it off.
Five years into his Senate career, Cruz wants to remind you that he’s still “Tough as Texas,” the banner under which he’s rolled out his campaign. The Princeton and Harvard Law grad is pitching himself as the living incarnation of the Lone Star spirit. On the trail, Cruz reminisces on his childhood awe of Texas heroes like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Chuck Norris, and segues into modern feats of heroism carried out by ordinary Texans in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the Sutherland Springs church massacre — the “rednecks in bass boats” who pulled people out of harm’s way in Houston, and Stephen Willeford, the NRA rifle instructor (or as Cruz puts it, “the media’s worst nightmare”) who grabbed his AR-15 and ran to the church to stop the shooter.
“That’s Texas. That’s who we are,” he peppers throughout his speeches.
Like a commercial for the truck he rode in on, Cruz’s political message leans heavily on tropes about toughness and exceptionalism. “I’ve said many times, Texas is America on steroids. The ethos of our great state is, ‘Give me a horse and a gun and an open plain and we can conquer the world,’” Cruz said. “Texas is strong. Texas is independent. Texas is free. Texas loves freedom and Texas is tough. That’s who we are collectively, those are the values of our state.”
More important than the Texas-er-than-thou schtick, Cruz doesn’t appear to be tempering his far-right politics all that much, despite speculation about a post-presidential Cruz reboot, a softening of his rougher edges. Rather, he seems to be hewing closer to the brand of confrontational conservatism that first fueled his upset primary campaign in 2012 against former Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. His supporters still embrace his ideological obstructionist approach to politics in Washington, D.C.
“I love the stubborn, strong conservatism. He couldn’t represent me any better,” Cruz supporter Dan Murphy, who made the hour drive to the Farm Bureau event from Grandview with his wife, told me. And his haters? “They’ll come around.”
Cruz heads into his re-election campaign facing El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, his upstart challenger who has found himself carrying the hopes and dreams of energized Texas Democrats on his back. After launching his campaign as a virtual unknown in the state one year ago, he’s gained a cult following as he crisscrosses the state, live-streaming his life on the trail and holding town hall rallies in counties that Democrats wrote off years ago. On Tuesday, O’Rourke made waves as he announced a blockbuster fundraising haul for he first quarter of 2018. His campaign, which has sworn off federal PAC money, said it brought in $6.7 million from 141,000 donors.
“That’s a whole lotta money — there’s no doubt about that,” Cruz told reporters on the trail in San Antonio.
After taking care not to acknowledge O’Rourke’s campaign for nearly all of its first year, Cruz promptly went on the offensive as the polls closed on primary day. He compared him to Bernie Sanders and released a radio jingle attacking O’Rourke for going by “Beto” instead of “Robert” and for his views on immigration, gun control and taxes. “If you’re gonna run in Texas, you can’t be a liberal, man. ‘Cause liberal thought is not the spirit of a Lone Star man,” the tune, sung over Alabama’s “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas,” goes.
Not so subtly, Cruz is signaling that the El Paso native, the one who goes by his Hispanic nickname, runs counter to the Texas spirit. Cruz warns his supporters about the prospects of a liberal wave cresting in Texas. “The extreme left, in November they’re going to show up in big numbers,” he said outside Waco. “They’re energized, they’re angry, they hate the president. And they’re gonna shatter records in November. That means each of us has a responsibility, because freedom doesn’t defend itself.”
“My opponent is running to the hard left,” Cruz told a reporter in Tyler earlier this week. “He’s running in support of open borders. His guest at the State of the Union was an illegal immigrant — you get one guest and he wanted to bring an illegal immigrant. I think we need to secure the borders and end sanctuary cities. My opponent supports sanctuary cities. My opponent recently tweeted out to the world how proud he is of his ‘F’ rating from NRA. That’s pretty extreme.”
O’Rourke has hit back, too, most recently in an interview with the Texas Tribune in which he said that Cruz and President Trump “want you to be afraid of Mexicans. When they call them rapists and criminals, and say only a wall will keep them out.”
On Tuesday evening, Beto supporters held signs like “Repeal and Replace Ted Cruz” outside an office park in northeast Austin, where Cruz was holding a campaign event centered on the need to end Obamacare. Inside, on the shop floor of Texas Mailhouse Inc, a local printing company, he read personal stories from supporters about their struggles navigating the Affordable Care Act and called once again for a full repeal of the law, a feat that his own party failed to accomplish even with unilateral control of the government.
Cruz has studiously avoided naming President Trump on the stump and sermonizes more as if Obama were still president, talking of a great debate raging in Washington, D.C., between the big-government liberals who want endless taxes and regulation and the crusading conservatives like himself who heroically push back against the swamp. “In Texas, we believe in low taxes, low regulation, low debt, and in Texas we want Washington, D.C., the heck off our backs,” he said in Austin.
Despite his abysmal national reputation and the fact that he’s running against a charismatic media darling, Cruz has a readymade advantage for re-election. He’s a Republican incumbent in a deep-red state with near-universal name recognition among Texas voters. He has a large and loyal grassroots base of enthusiastic activists. He’ll likely have an arsenal of outside super PAC money ready to assist, and he’ll be aided in large part by the tens of millions of dollars that Governor Greg Abbott plans to spend turning out Republicans. Meanwhile, O’Rourke is the marquee candidate on an otherwise low-caliber Democratic ticket and he’ll likely have to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to turning out the vote in order to make up for a lackluster state party infrastructure.
“The crucial point is that Texas remains a red state and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which any Democrat can win statewide in 2018,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. Especially, he says, against a name-brand politician like Cruz.
I asked Dan Murphy, the Cruz supporter, what he thought about the guy running against Cruz: Not much.“You know, somebody’s got to do it,” Murphy said, but he doesn’t give O’Rourke any semblance of a chance. “Not here. Not in Texas.”
“[If Beto wins], I think that we’ll be as surprised as the Democrats were when Trump won.”
Photos by Justin Miller.