U.S. Sen. Ted. Cruz spoke to the McLennan County Republican Club with fluent ease about “the biggest, most important battle in the country right now” — and breezily insulted some of his GOP brethren while he was at it.
“The effort to defund Obamacare has been described as deceitful, dishonest, nuts, crazy and wacko. And that’s just the Republicans,” Cruz said at a benefit Thursday for the town of West that was devastated by a fertilizer explosion in April. He suggested it would take a groundswell of public support to get recalcitrant conservatives to join his effort to risk a government shutdown if the federal budget includes a penny for the Affordable Care Act.
“We were all taught in biology that invertebrates can’t walk upright, but politicians disprove that every single day,” Cruz said.
The line, a Cruz perennial, got a good laugh, and U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, the conservative Republican from Bryan who represents West in Congress and was sharing the dais with Cruz, smiled through it — even though he doesn’t support the Cruz defunding strategy.
Afterward, Flores said he shares Cruz’s objectives, but he didn’t approve of “rocks being thrown” in either direction and worried about the potential casualties from “friendly fire within the Republican Party.”
But Flores was at pains to make clear that he wasn’t engaged in or picking a fight with Cruz.
Flores is hardly alone.
Right now, no one in the Texas Republican Party wants to pick a fight with Cruz.
A little more than a year after his stunning, come-from-behind victory over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Republican Senate primary, and a mere eight months into his freshman term, Cruz has emerged as the dominant Republican in the state of Texas. He might even be on the verge of outgrowing Texas.
Last week, he made his second very successful visit to Iowa, the first presidential caucus state, and on Friday he was in Dublin, N.H., for a political event in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
He is, within Texas and beyond, far more fussed over and feared than Gov. Rick Perry, who, after all, is on his way out. He is far bolder and better known than his former boss and Perry’s most likely successor, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. And he has both overshadowed and undermined his senior GOP colleague, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
In terms of national celebrity, Cruz’s only real Texas political rival is Wendy Davis, the Democratic state senator from Fort Worth who became a national figure virtually overnight with her filibuster of abortion legislation at the end of June. But Davis would actually have to win the governorship of Texas to leap into the same league as Cruz.
Each step of the way, from the moment he set foot in the Senate, Cruz has been viewed by much of the Washington establishment of both parties, by much of the mainstream media, professional punditry and the entire cast at MSNBC as a brilliant, but dangerous man embarked on a destructive and ultimately self-destructive course.
“Senator Cruz is clearly a talented person, and he could be a powerful voice for conservatism,” Peter Wehner, who served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, wrote this week in Commentary, a leading neoconservative magazine. “Or he could, if he’s not careful, fly too close to the sun. Ted Cruz is well-read enough to know that it’s a long and painful drop to the sea.”
But, so far, Cruz only seems to soar higher and higher.
“I think that guy has his finger on the pulse of the people — his support comes from outside the bubble,” said Luke Macias, a Republican political consultant from San Antonio who specializes in tea party campaigns.
Cruz might only have a dozen allies in the Senate right now, but, as he told the GOP in Waco, he drew 2,000 to 3,000 folks to a Defund Obamacare town hall meeting in Dallas on a Tuesday night.
When he wasn’t making headlines this week with his Defund Obamacare campaign, he was driving the news cycle with the release of his birth certificate – a veritable rite of passage for presidential candidates in the age of Obama. More consequential was the accompanying news – even to Cruz – that, by virtue of his Canadian birth, he was still a citizen of Canada as well as the United States, a dual nationality he promised to dispose of.
Meanwhile, Dewhurst, the man he humiliated last August, was in the headlines for an awkward call he made this month to the police in Allen to try to spring (without success) his niece from jail on charge of shoplifting a $57 bag of groceries from a self-service checkout at a Kroger.
Perry, the putative leader of Texas Republicans, is a lame duck, having announced he won’t seek another term as governor next year. Perry told Newsmax on Thursday that running for president in 2016 is a “very viable option.” But if Cruz has already vaulted into the ranks of first-tier candidates, Perry would start out in the second or third tier – his first challenge is to erase the memory of his last stumbling presidential run in 2012. Perhaps with that memory in mind, in his interview with Newsmax, Perry described Cruz, a potential political rival, as “one of the great debaters of our time.”
By all rights, the spotlight during the August recess ought to be on Cruz’s senior partner in Washington – Cornyn – who is, after all, up for re-election in 2014. He is the minority whip, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, with the potential to become a future minority or – if Republicans can regain control of the Senate – majority leader. His voting record is virtually identical to Cruz’s. Cornyn originally signed onto the Defund Obamacare effort, but he then thought better of it.
But his August recess in Texas has been a fairly low-key affair, keeping Cornyn away from scenes that would spark talk of a Cruz-Cornyn conflict. At the Republican fundraiser Friday in New Hampshire, Cruz said he wouldn’t be making an endorsement in Cornyn’s primary race. At this point, Cornyn doesn’t have a serious Republican rival and doesn’t want to do anything to inspire one before the filing deadline in early December.
He has done more controlled events – like an Aug. 15 Google hangout and a tele-town hall meeting Wednesday — in which he took questions online. In both cases, the first question was whether he was on board with Cruz on defunding the Affordable Care Act, and, if not, why not?
“This is what I would call a friendly disagreement on tactics in the family and certainly not one of ultimate goals,” Cornyn said at the tele-town hall session.
But, if it’s a family disagreement, it’s a fairly dysfunctional family. One conservative group, ForAmerica, launched a Web video this week comparing Cornyn to a chicken as part of its “You Fund It, You Own It” campaign with Tea Party Patriots. Another conservative group, FreedomWorks, launched a digital advertising campaign questioning why “Senator John Cornyn — one of the original supporters – has bowed to the Republican Establishment.”
“It does seem kind of wishy-washy,” said Lenee Lovejoy of Hays County, who was among a throng packed into a banquet room at Texas Land and Cattle in Austin on Wednesday night to hear Whitney Neal, director of campaigns for FreedomWorks, describe Come and Take It TX, the campaign FreedomWorks is launching to combat Battleground Texas’ efforts to turn the state Democratic. Neal said FreedomWorks is also happy to help defeat any Republican incumbents the folks there found uninspiring.
Abbott, his eyes on the governorship, is trying to stay out of the line of fire on Cruz’s defunding strategy.
At a news conference he called this month to once again attack Obamacare, Abbott said congressional tactics were “outside the sphere of my expertise.”
“Abbott’s trying to be Ted Cornyn — he wants to be everyone’s friend,” said Macias, the consultant.
In Waco, Wesley Lloyd, a young attorney and president of the McLennan County Republican Party who emceed the West benefit, said he worries about internecine Republican feuding, noting that Democrats turned Colorado blue while once-dominant Republicans argued among themselves.
But, of Cruz’s star quality, he said, there can be no doubt.
“His synapses fire quicker than average,” Lloyd said.