Ted Cruz might become the next Ronald Reagan—if he can just win an election first.
It’s the first full day of last October’s values voters summit in Washington, D.C., and Ted Cruz is electrifying his audience. Dressed in a dark suit and with a wireless mic attached to his gold tie, the former Texas solicitor general paces the stage in a ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel like a cross between Atticus Finch and Tony Robbins.
Cruz, who is running for the Republican nomination to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate, knows what the crowd of religious and social conservatives wants, and he gives it to them. Pious references to our Founding Fathers? Of course. Embracing the legacy of Ronald Reagan? Definitely. Dire warnings about the “gay rights agenda,” “Obamacare” and “government planners”? Yes, yes and yes. Hyperbolic attacks on the current president? Check. “Barack Obama is the most radical president this nation has ever had,” he intones. Each applause line is punctuated by a huge smile and a curt nod, as he waits for the audience to respond.
On occasion, his voice booms. “The American people are rising up, and together we are going to retake our nation!” At other times, he drops to an earnest stage whisper. “A big part of the reason Barack Obama got elected is because Republicans had lost their way. … We’ve got to stand up together and defend religious liberty. … The United States has enjoyed the greatest prosperity in the history of the world because free enterprise works.”
By the time the 15-minute speech ends, the audience is shouting “Yes, we can!” as Cruz asks whether the Republican Party can retake the U.S. Senate and defeat Obama in 2012. They send him off with a standing ovation.
Performances like this have made Cruz, the 40-year-old Ivy League-educated son of a Cuban immigrant, a darling of the national conservative movement—and potentially a major force in Texas Republican politics over the next decade.
In June of last year, Washington Post columnist George Will wrote that Cruz’s story—his Hispanic background, academic pedigree and conservative legal track record—is “as good as it gets.” He’s won the support of the anti-tax Club for Growth, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s tea party-inspired FreedomWorks, and Erick Erickson, founder of the influential conservative blog RedState. He’s also received the endorsement of arch-conservative U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, as well as those of tea party favorites Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Former U.S. attorney general and Republican Party elder statesman Ed Meese is Cruz’s national campaign chair.
A few days after his October speech in Washington, Cruz appeared on the cover of The National Review, which called him “the next great conservative hope.”
“I think he’s very Reaganesque,” said Ryan Hecker, a former tea party leader in Houston and current chief operating officer of FreedomWorks’ super-PAC, FreedomWorks for America, which has been organizing on Cruz’s behalf. “He’s not an establishment Republican, even by Texas standards. We’re looking at someone who has the potential to be one of the great conservative leaders of our time.”
But first he has to win an election. That could prove difficult for Cruz. His main opponent for the Republican Senate nomination is the state’s lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, who doesn’t excite the party’s grassroots activists, but does have political power, statewide name recognition and lots of money, from both a bulging campaign account and an estimated $200 million personal fortune.
To pull off the upset, Cruz has tried to identify himself as the conservative choice, campaigning on tea party and evangelical support, and portraying Dewhurst as the sort of unprincipled moderate that led Republicans astray in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Club for Growth has picked up on this theme, running anti-Dewhurst television ads that label the lieutenant governor as a tax-raising “moderate” who is “wrong for Texas.”
But no matter how much buzz surrounds Cruz on the national level, he still must translate it into on-the-ground support among Texas Republican primary voters.
“How many votes does The National Review have in Texas?” said former Texas Republican state chairman and current Texas Workforce Commission Chair Tom Pauken. “That’s nice, but I don’t know that it necessarily is the arbiter of conservatism. I think conservatives are going to be very fragmented in this race, just like they are in the Republican presidential primary race, and that doesn’t work to his advantage here.”
In fact, Cruz is a somewhat unlikely candidate to carry the tea party banner. Since leaving his job as solicitor general, he has worked in Houston as a high-priced corporate lawyer, and his Princeton and Harvard degrees and prestigious federal court clerkships aren’t credentials that usually excite grassroots conservatives. Yet polls show him to be Dewhurst’s most formidable opponent, and the primary contest is shaping up to be the latest test of tea party strength in Texas. Perhaps most important, Cruz could become the highest-profile Hispanic to win a nomination from a Texas Republican Party that has struggled to support Hispanic candidates and appeal to the state’s fastest-growing demographic segment. His potential seems limitless, if he can live up to the hype.
Cruz has never held elected office. He’s basing his campaign on his litigating experience and his life story. That story begins with Cruz’s father, who, as Cruz often says in his stump speeches, was imprisoned and tortured in Cuba and eventually left that country for a better life in the United States. Cruz cites his father as a source of inspiration, who taught him to value the freedom and opportunity that America offers. What Cruz usually leaves out is that Rafael Cruz was a rebel who fought on the same side as Fidel Castro against right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista, and it was in a Batista prison that the 17-year-old Rafael Cruz was tortured. Cruz received a student visa from Cuba in 1957—a year before Castro’s rise to power—and immigrated to the United States. Rafael enrolled at the University of Texas, paying his way by washing dishes.
Unlike Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Cruz has never falsely claimed his father fled from Castro, but his vagueness on the stump has led some to make that assumption. At the Values Voter Summit, for instance, conservative activist Kelly Shackelford introduced Cruz by saying his father had “escaped Fidel Castro.” When asked about this by The Dallas Morning News, Cruz emphasized that he had explained his father’s full story “many, many times”—although the paper could find no recent instances in public speeches. (The Cruz campaign didn’t respond to interview requests for this article.)
Cruz’s parents met at the University of Texas, and after graduating they started a small oil industry-related business. Ted Cruz—whose full name is Rafael Edward Cruz—was born in 1971 in Calgary, Canada, where his parents were working at the time. Cruz’s family later returned to Texas. In 1988, Cruz entered Princeton University, where he competed as a debater, winning numerous awards. Then it was on to Harvard Law, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1995, having served as primary editor of the Harvard Law Review and executive editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy.
His first legal clerkship was with Judge J. Michael Luttig of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, considered one of the leading conservative minds in the country. His second clerkship was with then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, making Cruz the first Hispanic Supreme Court clerk and the first minority to clerk for a chief justice. His relationship with Rehnquist grew so close that he would serve as a pallbearer at Rehnquist’s funeral in 2005.
After a brief stint at a Washington law firm, Cruz hitched his wagon to George W. Bush. He moved to Austin to serve as a legal expert on the 2000 presidential campaign, where he met his wife, Heidi Nelson. After Bush’s election, the couple returned to Washington, where Cruz worked at the Justice Department and then the Federal Trade Commission, while Nelson joined the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, and later the Treasury Department and National Security Council. But it wasn’t until Cruz returned to Texas yet again that he really made a name for himself.
In 2003, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott nominated Ted Cruz to become the third solicitor general in state history. The office is a relatively recent creation, formed as a division within the attorney general’s office in 1999 to oversee civil and criminal appeals involving the state. The office also handles any friend-of-the-court (amicus) briefs the state may file in cases to which it is not directly a party.
During his five years working for the state, Cruz kept busy. His office produced 70 U.S. Supreme Court briefs, and he personally participated in oral arguments before the high court eight times. Cruz developed a reputation as a top-flight litigator, winning the Best Brief Award from the National Association of Attorneys General for five consecutive years.
“Ted Cruz is one of the finest appellate attorneys in the United States,” said Edward Burbach, who worked alongside Cruz in the attorney general’s office as deputy attorney general for litigation. “He’s clearly a very brilliant individual.”
Without a legislative record to run on, Cruz has made his work as solicitor general on a series of high-profile legal battles a central part of his campaign. His website lists them as part of his “proven record,” and during speeches he rattles off their names and the conservative principles he championed.
In some, such as those involving challenges to late-term abortion, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, and the constitutionality of religious symbols on federal land, Cruz’s involvement was limited to organizing and serving as counsel of record for one of any number of amicus briefs presented to the Supreme Court. In the 2005 case Van Orden v. Perry, which dealt with the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, Cruz was counsel of record, but Attorney General Abbott argued before the high court.
Other times Cruz had a leading role, serving as counsel of record and participating in oral arguments. He represented the state in challenges to Texas’ 2003 redistricting—challenges alleging that Republican-drawn congressional maps infringe on minority voting rights and amount to unconstitutional political gerrymandering—that reached the Supreme Court in 2006.
In a 2008 case involving Louisiana’s death penalty for child rapists, the Supreme Court granted Cruz the rare privilege of participating in oral arguments as a representative of Texas and other states that had filed an amicus brief in support of the law. Although the U.S. solicitor general is often invited to take part in suits in which the federal government has an interest, the involvement of other amici is unusual. Louisiana and Cruz ended up losing the case in a 5-4 decision.
Cruz claims he’s proudest of the 2008 case Medellìn v. Texas. He cited the case by name during his closing statement at the January 12 GOP Senate candidates’ debate in Austin. It’s easy to understand why. The case featured a United Nations court, federal government intrusion on state power and a Texas favorite: the death penalty. The case involved Jose Medellín, a Mexican citizen on death row for the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston, and 50 other similarly situated Mexican nationals who had not been informed of their right to seek legal assistance from the Mexican government following their arrests. Mexico had challenged the convictions before the International Court of Justice, which ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and that the cases should be reopened.
The Bush administration attempted to force a recalcitrant Texas appeals court to reconsider Medellín’s case in light of the international court’s decision and U.S. treaty obligations. Cruz countered that neither the international tribunal nor the federal government could tell Texas courts what to do. By a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court agreed—and Jose Medellín was executed on August 5, 2008.
Although Cruz is quick to take credit for Medellín and other Texas victories in the high court, a source familiar with the role of Texas solicitor general emphasized that “the attorney general has final say on all important issues.” The Dewhurst campaign has echoed this, with Dewhurst adviser Dave Carney telling the Austin American-Statesman in March, “The facts are clear: Ted Cruz never made a single decision on which cases to take before the Supreme Court. Those important decisions were solely at the discretion of Attorney General Greg Abbott.”
On the campaign trail, Cruz doesn’t spend much time talking about what he’s done since leaving the solicitor general’s office. In May 2008, he joined the Houston office of the international law firm Morgan Lewis, where as a partner he earned $1.2 million in 2009 and $1.7 million in 2010, representing a laundry list of deep-pocketed corporate interests. He served as counsel for drug manufacturer Pfizer in a lawsuit brought by public hospitals and community health centers. He represented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a challenge to the Obama administration’s Gulf Coast drilling restrictions, a student loan company challenging a court’s dismissal of a bankrupt student’s debt, and an insurance company attempting to avoid paying a plaintiff’s legal bills after a disability suit was settled out of court.
In 2010, when it looked like his former boss Greg Abbott was going to be a candidate for lieutenant governor, and as the top statewide Republicans played political musical chairs, Cruz began eyeing a run for Texas attorney general. His campaign committee amassed $1.3 million, including donations of $250,000 from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, $100,000 from San Antonio businessman David Spencer, $50,000 from Paulson & Co. hedge fund Managing Director Michael Waldorf, $35,000 from construction magnate and Republican mega-donor Bob Perry, and $25,000 from Paul Mitchell hair products co-founder John Paul DeJoria. When Kay Bailey Hutchison decided to retain her Senate seat, and everyone stayed put, Cruz pulled out of the race for AG rather than challenge Abbott.
In 2011, Cruz made his ninth appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning a case for a French fryer manufacturer that had sued a Chinese company for stealing its technology. Another patent case, however, has come back to haunt him. In November 2010, Cruz signed on to represent Chinese tire manufacturer Shandong Linglong. The company was appealing a $26 million jury verdict awarded to Florida businessman Jordan Fishman, who alleged that the Chinese company was violating his patent by using blueprints stolen by one of Fishman’s former employees.
The legal issues in the case—the applicability of U.S. copyright law to actions taking place wholly on foreign soil—have taken a back seat to intimations that Cruz is siding with a Chinese company against an American businessman. For a candidate who bases so much of his campaign on being on the “right” side of high-profile legal cases, such an alignment could prove damaging.
Thanks to Gov. Rick Perry’s quixotic presidential campaign attracting most of the state’s political attention, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the exact date of the primary due to the ongoing legal battle over redistricting, the Senate campaign got off to a slow start. As things heat up, however, ahead of the May 29 primary, it appears that the race is shaping up to be a battle between Dewhurst and Cruz, although former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert could self-finance his way into being a factor.
In the March 31 Federal Election Commission filings, Cruz reported having spent $1.9 million with $3.2 million cash on hand, compared to Dewhurst’s $4.4 million spent with $3.2 million in the bank (including a $2 million personal loan to his campaign) and Leppert’s $2.2 million spent with $4.1 million on hand (which includes a $3.6 million personal loan). Former SMU football star and ESPN analyst Craig James has raised about $1 million and spent almost half.
The polling data is scattered, but generally shows Dewhurst with a lead eroded by steadily growing support for Cruz. A February UT/Texas Tribune poll had the lieutenant governor at 38 percent and Cruz at 27, with the rest of the pack in single digits. A January 17 Public Policy Polling survey had the lieutenant governor at 36 percent and Cruz at 18, with 31 percent undecided—putting Cruz 11 points closer to the lead than he had been in a September PPP poll.
Given the significant advantages that Dewhurst has, Cruz’s best hope may be that Dewhurst stays below 50 percent, forcing a head-to-head runoff battle.
“If I were running somebody’s campaign in this race, my goal would be to get into a runoff with Dewhurst and hope that, with the lighter turnout, Dewhurst’s resources will have less of an impact,” said former Republican Party state chairman Pauken.
For Cruz to pull off a win, he’s going to have to overcome a number of obstacles. First and foremost, of course, is money. Cruz is up against two candidates with large personal fortunes. And while nearly $3 million in the bank is a respectable sum for Cruz, campaigning statewide in Texas isn’t cheap. (In 2008, Sen. John Cornyn spent more than $18 million on his re-election campaign.)
“I’ve heard that Cruz is having trouble raising money because the Dewhurst people have kind of defensively locked down sources of big Republican money,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “I think they’re right to sense a certain softness in Dewhurst, but Dewhurst is kind of the Mitt Romney of the Texas race. There may be faint enthusiasm, but he has a lot of assets, and he is the establishment candidate.”
Another major hurdle is name recognition. In the January PPP poll, Dewhurst had 60 percent name recognition, with Leppert at 36 percent and Cruz at 29 percent. Of note, however, is that among the 29 percent who had heard of Cruz, he led Dewhurst 34 percent to 31 percent, which could indicate that the more Republican voters hear of him, the more they like him over the lieutenant governor.
His opponents likely will try to damage Cruz’s standing with tea party Republicans, who are nearly as distrustful of big corporations as they are of big government. The Dewhurst campaign has been quick to point out that Cruz’s law firm partners have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates. Cruz’s wife is a vice president at Goldman Sachs and former member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which Cruz had, at one point, called a “pernicious nest of snakes”).
Cruz’s efforts have not been helped by what one political operative familiar with the campaign called the candidate’s sense of arrogance, which has filtered down to his staff. He said that Cruz’s lawyerly rhetoric may have helped him connect with national Republicans, but the candidate Cruz has lacked charisma in press-the-flesh situations, and sometimes comes across as overly academic, which hasn’t played well with Texas Republican primary voters.
There’s also the possibility that a segment of the Republican primary electorate will be reluctant to vote for a Hispanic candidate. In 2010, then-Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Victor Carrillo was soundly defeated in the Republican primary by little-known accountant David Porter, 61 percent to 39 percent, despite outspending his opponent by a 20-to-1 margin. In a post-election email to supporters, Carrillo blamed his loss on anti-Latino bias among Republican voters. “Given the choice between ‘Porter’ and ‘Carrillo,’” he wrote, “unfortunately, the Hispanic surname was a serious setback from which I could never recover … .”
The phenomenon also appeared nine years earlier, when Perry-appointed Texas Supreme Court Justice Xavier Rodriguez was defeated by a lesser-known white opponent, despite outspending his opponent $558,000 to $9,500.
“Clearly a lot of people look back and think that the Victor Carillo factor is lurking out there,” said Henson, who co-directs the UT/Texas Tribune poll. “We’ve had a couple of races where this seems to be the case, where a Hispanic surname seems to have a negative effect on GOP voting. The anecdotal evidence is suggestive.”
Texas GOP consultant Craig Murphy said he thinks that Cruz has enough resources to prevent a repeat of the Carillo effect, however. “The only time that a Hispanic surname hurts a Republican candidate is when you’re an unknown,” he said. “If you stay in the race where the candidate has enough money to advertise, then the problem disappears.”
With several million in the bank and outside support, Cruz has the resources—which means his race will be closely watched for signs of anti-Hispanic voting patterns in the Republican electorate. If Cruz performs at or above expectations, he should be well positioned for future races, even if his underdog bid to defeat Dewhurst falls short.
“I know that attorney general is ultimately his goal,” said the source familiar with the Cruz campaign. “It’s his dream ticket. I think he sees the Senate race as his path to where he needs to be.”
A Dewhurst victory means there’s still a possibility that Abbott could try for lieutenant governor in 2014, putting Cruz back where he was in 2010, eying a race for attorney general—only with better name recognition, a more extensive fundraising network, and the experience of having already run a statewide campaign. Losing the Senate race, Ted Cruz could still win in the end. And if he proves a Hispanic candidate can win the support of Republican primary voters, Texas Democrats could be facing a landscape-shifting adversary for years to come.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida) has endorsed Ted Cruz. Rubio hasn’t endorsed Cruz. The Observer regrets the error.