Dinner with Ted Cruz required prep work. A strategy. This much Jessica ­Herrera-Flanigan knew about her friend of many years, the conservative Harvard Law School standout who later became the solicitor general of Texas.

Don’t talk politics!” she warned her boyfriend and future husband, Thomas Flanigan, who happens to be a political liberal. Don’t let him bait you.

But, settled into a table at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the Capitol in Austin a few years back, Cruz kept coming. Challenging “liberal” notions about climate change. Touting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Boom. Boom. Boom.

“It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to take on the issues. Let’s see if you want to engage with me on it,’ ” recalls Herrera-Flanigan, who was a Harvard Law School classmate of Cruz’s and is now a D.C.-based consultant. “It’s not the political niceties.”

Cruz, as ever, was being the verbal grinder, the self-assured, nonstop talker who won national debate championships as an undergraduate at Princeton. In the realm of organized debating, there were rules and understandings. Point-counterpoint. Debate for the sake of debate to provoke a discussion, to make a point. And Cruz had many points to make in more than an hour of impassioned but convivial intellectual jousting.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) raised eyebrows with his sharp questioning of then-nominee for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Jan. 31. (The Washington Post)

In the four months since taking office as the junior senator from Texas, Cruz has been doing to Washington what he did to Herrera-Flanigan’s boyfriend: daring it to engage, looking for a fight and getting it. Not only has Washington taken the bait, but Cruz has turned into the shiny new thing for right-flank Republicans in the 2016 presidential speculation game. His buzz-worthiness was boosted by his selection as the headliner for the GOP’s Silver Elephant Dinner last Friday night in the early-
primary state of South Carolina, and it has been further stoked by a widely read National Review piece citing sources who say Cruz is seriously mulling a presidential bid.

Cruz, who honed his reputation early in his career as a dazzling Supreme Court advocate, has bashed into the national conversation, in part, by criticizing his own party, lamenting a “defeatist attitude” among establishment Republicans that he finds “utterly maddening.” He jeered Mitt Romney, saying the Republican presidential candidate “French-kissed” President Obama at their third debate, and slashed his Republican Senate colleagues as “squishes” on gun laws. And he raised dark questions about whether payments from “extreme or radical groups” might be hidden in undisclosed income statements of the eventual defense secretary, former Republican senator Chuck Hagel.

John McCain of Arizona called Cruz and his fellow tea-party-backed Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah “wacko birds” in an interview with the Huffington Post that has gone viral. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has called him “arrogant.” Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat, has accused Cruz of going “over the line” in attacking Hagel.

And on Monday, Cruz was irking colleagues again, this time Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who accused him of being “a schoolyard bully” during a testy exchange on the Senate floor. “He pushes everybody around,” Reid said. Cruz, who had been objecting to Reid’s generally routine appointment of members to a joint House-Senate budget committee, parried by saying, “I wasn’t aware we are in the schoolyard.”

But you get a sense talking to Cruz allies — and listening to Cruz talk — that their reaction to all the criticism could most easily be summed up in two words: “Lovin’ it!” Rather than back down, he’s stiffened. Even as Democrats were accusing him of McCarthyism and smearing Hagel, he was shooting back his contention that the former senator had been soft in his support for Israel.

“If standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution makes you a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird,” Cruz said to loud applause during his keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March.

“Every time Ted Cruz is attacked by the Washington, D.C., establishment, all it does is cause Ted Cruz’s star to shine brighter with the grass roots,” says Richard Viguerie, the venerable conservative advocate and author. The open question is whether Cruz is merely a niche player who’s getting a nice pop these days or something bigger.


Cruz, 42, was born in Calgary, Alberta, where his parents — Rafael Cruz, who is Cuban American, and his Delaware-born mother, Eleanor Darragh, who has Irish and Italian roots — worked in the oil industry. They named him Rafael Edward Cruz, but he goes by R. Ted or just plain Ted. (Cruz’s foreign birth is already generating arguments about his eligibility for the presidency, even though legal experts seem to be mostly in agreement that he’d meet the “natural-born citizen” requirement because his mother was a citizen when he was born.)

Cruz, who can be an engaging public speaker, frames his father’s story as an embodiment of perseverance and an inspiration for his political career. His father fought with Fidel Castro’s forces in the Cuban Revolution and was imprisoned and tortured by the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, he tells audiences. In 1957, Cruz says, his father fled to the United States with $100 sewn into his underwear and became staunchly anti-Castro. He worked as a 50-cent-an-hour dishwasher, paid his way through college, started a small business and later became a pastor, Cruz says.

The father’s small-government political views clearly influenced the son, Viguerie says. He’s “hard-core conservative,” Viguerie said approvingly of Cruz’s father. After spending half an hour talking politics with Cruz’s father at a recent awards dinner, one of Viguerie’s colleagues quipped to the senator that he’d just “realized, we elected the wrong congressman,” Viguerie recalls.

“You’re not the first to say that!” Cruz said with a chuckle, Viguerie recalls.

As a teenager in Houston, Cruz received instruction from an organization called the Free Enterprise Institute, whose Web site says it’s dedicated to forming “conservative leaders through the study of the history and principles of the American Republic and its roots in Western Civilization. . . . [W]e also aim to impart practical knowledge to leaders, so that they can awaken the seeds of wisdom and the moral imagination in others and win the battle of ideas among colleagues and neighbors.”

Cruz, who was unavailable to comment for this story, memorized a mnemonic version of the Constitution and traveled the state giving speeches about its tenets. During an interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace shortly after his 2012 victory in the Republican Senate primary, Cruz demonstrated this, ticking off the mnemonic for Article 1, Section 8, which lays out congressional powers: “TCC-NCC-PCC. Pawn momma run: Taxes, credit, commerce. Naturalization, coinage, counterfeiting. Post office, copyright, courts, piracy, army, war, navy . . .”

At the Supreme Court

As a young conservative at Harvard, he found himself in the minority but cultivated friendships across the political spectrum, says Herrera-Flanigan, his classmate. She and Cruz were among the founding editors of the Harvard Latino Law Review. A high school debater herself, she saw in Cruz a style sharpened by years of debate competitions. “It’s less of a conversation, more point-counterpoint. Zingers,” she says.

Being a standout, a real star student — and knowing it — didn’t sit well with everyone, Herrera-Flanigan says. “Anytime you have somebody who has a lot of ambition and who knows they’re smart, it can be easy for some people not to like them,” she says.

Cruz landed a clerkship with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and in 2003, at the age of 32, became the nation’s youngest state solicitor general. Cruz became a regular at the Supreme Court, making nine oral arguments before the court and writing briefs for dozens of others. His legal career buttressed his conservative bona fides during his Senate campaign, giving him concrete examples with great appeal to tea party activists. He worked on winning cases to preserve the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and to allow a statue commemorating the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol.

But his signature turn at the Supreme Court might have been the case of a Mexican national named Jose Medellin, who had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two Texas teenagers as part of a gang-initiation ritual. The case had it all: a powerful law-and-order element, touchy international issues and fundamental constitutional questions. The International Court of Justice, sometimes referred to as the World Court, had issued a ruling saying that U.S. courts should halt the executions of Medellin and four other Mexican nationals to conduct reviews of their claim that they’d been denied access to Mexican consulates after their arrests, a right that their attorneys argued was guaranteed under the Vienna Convention, to which the United States was a signatory. The George W. Bush administration asked Texas and the other affected states to comply. Cruz persuaded a divided Supreme Court that Bush didn’t have the authority to do that, and a few months later Medellin was put to death. Critics who accuse Cruz of being flip — or worse — in the Senate might not recognize the precise, articulate and cerebral lawyer who argued that case.

“I actually thought I’d see him on the Supreme Court before I’d see him in the U.S. Senate,” says Clint Bolick, an attorney and head of the libertarian Goldwater Institute who once touted Cruz as a possible choice for the high court.

Distinguishing himself

Politics and law have intertwined throughout Cruz’s rise. Before being appointed solicitor general, he’d been a staffer for Bush’s campaign, then part of the legal team in the Bush v. Gore case that sealed the election. In building a political career, he supplemented the appeal of his legal track record with tough, small-government rhetoric. He has said he wants to abolish the Commerce, Energy and Education departments (he’s made school choice a centerpiece cause), as well as the Transportation Security Administration. For much of the nation, Cruz’s victory in the Senate campaign was an introduction to a fresh new face of the conservative movement. Actually, he’d been there all along. They just hadn’t noticed.

Now you can’t miss him. There he is filibustering with Lee and Paul to pressure Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to answer whether drones can be used to kill Americans on U.S. soil who aren’t involved in combat. (The answer was “no.”) There he is drawing a firm line in opposition to the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal: not if it includes a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country.

Cruz’s immigration position has placed him on a possible collision course with the senator he’s most often measured against, that other young, tea-party-fueled, conservative Cuban American Republican, Marco Rubio of Florida. A Republican congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations downplayed any possible friction between the ascendant senators, saying the two have met recently to discuss immigration proposals and have had productive talks. While Cruz is getting feted in South Carolina, Rubio (who headlined last year’s Silver Elephant Dinner) is having to fend off increasingly fierce right-wing barbs because of his outspoken support of the immigration proposal. Tacking to Rubio’s right on immigration might help Cruz’s standing in a Republican primary — if it were ever to get to that point — but hurt him in a general election.

During Cruz’s Senate campaign, Bolick urged friends to donate to the firebrand who had impressed him as a Supreme Court clerk. “Everyone’s reaction was, “Who is Ted Cruz?’ ” Bolick said. He recalls telling those friends that, if Cruz was elected, “you will never need to ask that question again.”

Bolick was right.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.