For the past week, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his crusade to defund “Obamacare” have dominated the national news. This week, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, will return to the headlines with her expected announcement Thursday that she will run for governor in 2014.
It is a coincidence of timing that throws into sharp relief how suddenly this pair of former Harvard Law School students (Davis, class of 1993, would have overlapped one year with Cruz, class of 1995) have talked and tweeted their way to becoming the two most compelling characters in Texas politics.
But, in an unlikely and unexpected twist, it appears that even as Cruz’s no-prisoners attack on the usual way of doing business in Washington might enhance his standing as the tea party’s truest champion, it could also redound to the political benefit of Davis in a likely gubernatorial matchup with Attorney General Greg Abbott by highlighting and heightening the tensions within the Republican Party.
“He’s got Abbott in a box,” Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist who is close to Davis, said of Cruz. Angle explains that, as Sen. John Cornyn is learning, there is a price to pay for crossing Cruz, particularly amid the newly stoked passions on the activist right. But if Abbott adheres too closely to Cruz, he risks ceding some of the center to Davis and potentially alienating some business conservatives who might, like the editorialists at The Wall Street Journal, view Cruz’s recent maneuvering as self-serving “Kabuki theater.”
“The fact that no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994 means that lots of people have thrown in with the Republican Party, though not with the tea party wing, and it’s those people who could be jarred into looking for an alternative if Cruz looks too erratic,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
“It’s a long shot,” said Jillson, “but Cruz could put a wobble in a lot of people’s sense of what the Republican Party is all about.”
At the very least, Abbott would have been better off in what once promised to be, and might still be, an orderly ascension to power in a peaceable kingdom where he was master of his domain, rather than one in which different factions of his electoral coalition are firing at one another and Cruz is the dominant figure.
Since his victory a year ago over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the Republican Senate nomination, Cruz has been on a rocketing ascent.
But this past week was something altogether different.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, it was Cruz, round the clock, speaking for 21 hours and 20 minutes on the Senate floor in a facsimile of a filibuster, pressing the federal government to the brink of a showdown over defunding the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — that could lead to a government shutdown come Tuesday, and, along the way, igniting a tactical smack-down with other Republican senators, including his Texas colleague, Cornyn.
It was also, in its drama, a rejoinder to the extraordinary attention devoted to Davis’s tense filibuster of abortion legislation in the Texas Senate three months ago — ending the first special session of the Legislature and leading to a second special session. Even in a losing cause, Davis was transformed virtually overnight into a Texas Democratic icon and figure of national renown.
Abbott, for whom Cruz once worked as solicitor general, steered clear of taking sides in the internecine conflict over tactics among Senate Republicans, in which Cruz portrays those Republicans who weren’t willing to risk a government shutdown to defund Obamacare as moral milquetoasts, and they portrayed him and his band of supporters as pursuing an unwise strategy that was doomed to failure, could weaken the economy and would only hurt Republicans politically.
“The most important thing when you get into a fight is to know how it ends,” said Cornyn of Cruz’s course.
Since mid-summer, Cruz had argued that Congress shouldn’t approve a continuing resolution to keep the government funded past Sept. 30 if it included a penny for the Affordable Care Act. But Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and most of the GOP caucus contended that, without the votes to make that happen, they were risking a government shutdown that wouldn’t achieve its objective.
Abbott avoided choosing sides in the tactical dispute.
“As far as the internal machinations, the way the Congress’ budgetary process works, that’s outside the sphere of my expertise,” Abbott said at a North Austin campaign event denouncing Obamacare in early August.
“Abbott, who has an opinion on virtually everything else, doesn’t know whether he’s for or against shutting down the government?” asked Angle, the Democratic strategist.
When Abbott tweeted his support of Cruz’s epic speech Tuesday — a tweet that Cruz read aloud on the Senate floor — Democrats pounced.
“Today Abbott came out of hiding to declare his support for Ted Cruz’s ridiculous and shameful attempt to force a government shutdown,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa in a statement. “What Cruz is doing has caused a civil war among Republicans, and leads to an outcome that would harm Texans and our economy.”
That was followed by a Democratic conference call in which state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, a potential candidate for lieutenant governor, and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, also sought to tie Abbott to Cruz, who Van de Putte dismissed as a “Wendy wannabe.” (What Cruz did wasn’t technically a filibuster because it wasn’t delaying action on a bill, and its parameters were set in advance.)
Asked to clarify the attorney general’s opinion, Abbott campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch issued a statement Wednesday that read: “Greg Abbott believes America can have a win-win situation. We can defund Obamacare while also funding other government operations. No law in America will be as destructive to our economy, to jobs, and to health care access than Obamacare. He believes we must use this opportunity to rid the country of this law that even Democrats say is a train wreck, and then move in a bipartisan way toward a more effective health care plan.”
On Friday, the Senate voted 79-19 to cut off debate on the continuing resolution sent to the Senate by the House, which had had been stripped of any money for Obamacare. Cruz had described a “no” vote on cloture as the most crucial vote of the session. Cloture invoked, the Democratic-led Senate voted along party lines, with only a simple majority required, to restore the Obamacare funding and send the continuing resolution back to the House.
It was, in the view of Cruz, an act of capitulation by his Republican colleagues.
“They betrayed you,” FreedomWorks, a national tea party group, emailed its supporters on the conclusion of Friday’s votes — “they” including Cornyn, even though he votes with FreedomWorks 92 percent of the time and hired FreedomWorks alumni to run his 2014 re-election campaign.
The passions riled by Cruz in the last week were everywhere evident in Texas.
David Jennings, who blogs about conservative politics at the Houston Chronicle’s Big Jolly Politics, wrote Thursday of a Cornyn aide being booed when she was introduced at the weekly luncheon of the Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club. Jennings suggested that Dewhurst give up his bid for re-election and challenge Cornyn in the primary.
But Cornyn’s campaign reports it also received a surge of small donations this week, and Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said he has seen no evidence of a formidable challenger to Cornyn waiting in the wings.
On the governor’s race, Munisteri said that, by the time votes are cast in November 2014, the election will come down to liberal vs. conservative in a solidly center-right state.
“Do you think Obama is any more popular in Texas now than he was in 2012, and he lost by 16 percentage points in a state where Obama had a campaign team and (Mitt) Romney didn’t?” asked Munisteri.
But state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, the staunchest of tea party Republicans in the House, said Davis shouldn’t be underestimated.
She is Stickland’s senator, and when he worked the polls on Election Day 2012 for her Republican opponent, Mark Shelton, he was stunned by the number of people who said they were voting for Romney and Davis.
“It was unbelievable. Romney won that district with a good margin, and she still won,” said Stickland. “She’s a hard-core progressive, she is far, far left, and she did a hell of a job marketing herself as a business-friendly Democrat.”
Stickland said Davis’ abortion filibuster undercut her moderate image, but, he predicted, “She is going to run a great campaign. It’s going to be awesome. We’ve never seen anything like it.”
Davis faces very steep odds. Right now, Abbott has a 20-to-1 money advantage, which will give him a big head start in defining for the electorate who he is and who she is.
As Jillson contemplates what it would take for Davis to pull off an upset, he ticks off a series of ifs: “If Cruz looked too erratic, and Abbott made some mistakes, and you had no-fault tennis, a mistake-free campaign from Davis, and it can’t be Davis alone, you’ve got to put together a ticket and it’s got to be strong …”
That’s a lot of ifs, but the first of them involves the fellow Harvard Law grad sharing the headlines with her this past week and the one to come as she announces her campaign plans while he sees how the budget battle turns out.
Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman’s chief political writer; he spent 25 years as a Washington correspondent and has covered race and immigration issues. Find his blog at statesman.com/firstreading.