“Tough as Texas,” the reelection slogan of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), might stoke images of the state’s cultural identity, from jacked-up trucks and 10-gallon hats to red meat and the shooting range. It’s a canny appeal that Cruz has repeatedly played up, claiming facetiously that his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, wants to ban barbecue and that liberals nationwide hope to turn Texas into California, “right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.”
But if Cruz really was as Texas tough as he claims, a new ad by movie director Richard Linklater suggests, he would have dragged President Trump “out by the woodshed” for insulting his wife and father.
Paid for by the Fire Ted Cruz PAC, which was founded by a Dallas lawyer and Democratic donor, the 32-second commercial was released on YouTube on Monday night. Unsurprisingly, Linklater, the Oscar-nominated director, rejects the standard conventions of political advertising. The spot starts out with a shot of a diner check, dated 11/6 — Election Day. Then, the camera cuts to a white-haired man sitting in a dimly lit restaurant, its walls lined with Texas license plates and vintage Route 66 road signs, a bottle of red hot sauce on the table. He clutches a diner mug in one hand.
“Somebody left something on my door the other day that says, ‘Ted Cruz, tough as Texas,’” he says, laughing. “I mean, come on.”
The older man — actor Sonny Carl Davis — looks into the camera with a deadpan stare. His baseball hat is embroidered with a cannon and the words “Come and take it,” a symbol of Texas pride and defiance.
“If someone called my wife a dog, and said my daddy was in on the Kennedy assassination, I wouldn’t be kissing their ass,” Davis says with a slight drawl.
He points emphatically at the camera, leaning forward in his seat.
“You stick a finger in their chest and give ’em a few choice words. Or you drag their ass out by the woodshed and kick their ass, Ted.”
He settles back down, his voice laced with contempt and derision, and grabs his mug again.
“Come on, Ted,” he says, grimacing.
The video looks nothing like a typical campaign ad, because it isn’t. Linklater, the Houston-born director of “Boyhood” and “Dazed and Confused,” is known for his idiosyncratic and occasionally surreal style, and his realistic depictions of everyday life in small Texas towns.
His anti-Cruz ad replicates a scene from 2011’s “Bernie,” a dark comedy based on a true story about the murder of a wealthy widow in the Texas town of Carthage. In it, Davis, wearing an identical outfit and clutching the same diner mug, plays an unnamed resident at a barbecue joint. In a brief but memorable interlude, he explains the state’s regional stereotypes, from “Dallas snobs with their Mercedes” to “the Carcinogenic Coast” around Houston to “the People’s Republic of Austin, with a bunch of hairy-legged women and liberal fruitcakes.”
Though Trump’s name is never said in the ad, Davis’s lecture in the anti-Cruz spot is clearly a reference to the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, when Trump repeatedly insulted Cruz. Labeling him “Lyin’ Ted.” Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi. He shared unflattering photos of her on Twitter, comparing her unfavorably to Melania Trump. He also bizarrely suggested in May 2016 that Cruz’s father might have played a role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, possibly referencing an unsubstantiated report in the National Enquirer.
At the time, Cruz fought back, calling Trump a “sniveling coward,” a “pathological liar” and a “serial philanderer.” But after Trump won the Republican Party’s nomination, Cruz endorsed him. Not long after, he was photographed looking profoundly sad while phone-banking for Republicans under a row of Trump-Pence signs.
In September, during the only debate between Cruz and O’Rourke, the senator defended his decision to back Trump, the Dallas Morning News reported. Acknowledging that “there were some hard shots thrown,” Cruz explained that he had swallowed his pride for the sake of accomplishing the Republican Party’s agenda.
“After the election in 2016, I faced a choice,” he said, according to the Morning News. “Donald Trump had been elected president and we had an opportunity . . . to do something extraordinary . . . I could have chosen to make it about myself . . . to say my feelings are hurt and take my marbles and go home.”
The rancor seems to be over on both sides. Trump has endorsed Cruz in the Senate race and pledged to hold a “major rally” for the candidate in October in “the biggest stadium in Texas we can find.” Last week, Donald Trump Jr. stumped for Cruz in Texas, telling the audience that Cruz had “put aside any of those differences” and “fought alongside of my father ever since on every major vote, for every policy piece — for everything.”
But liberal activists opposing Cruz don’t want Texans to forget. One of Trump’s tweets asking why Texans would support Cruz “when he has accomplished absolutely nothing for them” and calling Cruz “another all talk, no action pol” has been blown up and printed on a 22-foot billboard truck, which is now touring the state.
As for Linklater, this isn’t the first time that he’s gotten involved in Texas politics. Federal Election Commission records indicate that he has a history of donating to Democratic candidates, and has given $1,500 to O’Rourke’s campaign so far this year. In 2017, he filmed a commercial denouncing a bill that would have prevented Texas public school students from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Linklater also famously featured Alex Jones in 2001’s “Waking Life” and 2006’s “A Scanner Darkly,” back when the Infowars host was a little-known fringe figure appearing on Austin’s public access TV. “I just thought he was kind of funny,” Linklater told the Daily Beast in 2017, describing Jones’s rise as one of the nation’s preeminent conspiracy theorists as “insane.”
The Fire Ted Cruz PAC has raised about $500,000 so far, founder and Dallas lawyer Marc Stanley told the Dallas Morning News. While Cruz has bombarded O’Rourke with attack ads arguing that the El Paso congressman is too liberal for Texas, O’Rourke has tried to stick to positive messaging. And some supporters think he could fight back a little harder. “Beto O’Rourke needs to smack Ted Cruz in the mouth, figuratively,” argued a Monday op-ed in the Morning News.
The Fire Ted Cruz PAC, which operates independently of O’Rourke’s campaign, is intended to supply exactly that kind of metaphorical punch in the face.
“It’s not in Beto’s DNA to be negative,” Stanley told the Morning News. “That’s one of the reasons that we started Fire Ted Cruz PAC, so that we could tell people how awful Ted Cruz is.”
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