Ross Ramsey is the executive editor of the Texas Tribune.
A political nobody just three years ago, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is the first official candidate vying for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. His was a noisy entrance into government, marked by outspokenness and partisanship that clearly delighted part of the public even as they irritated many of his colleagues. In a remarkably short period, he has become a national figure — one who is often misunderstood. Here are five myths about Ted Cruz.
1. Ted Cruz is anti-establishment.
Cruz earned his iconoclastic cred in part by not waiting in line for his turn to run for high office and in part by refusing to play the quiet, unnoticed freshman in the Senate. He has aggravated more-experienced Republicans in Austin and in Washington by appealing to the party’s fringes rather than its center.
But Cruz’s résumé is crammed with establishment credentials. He holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard; clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist; worked as an adviser on the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush, who was the clear establishment candidate in that race; and served as solicitor general for the state of Texas. If you’re part of the U.S. Senate, you’re part of the establishment.
Cruz was not the favorite to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Senate in 2012, and his presidential run has not drawn endorsements from Lone Star State establishment types such as Sen. John Cornyn and Gov. Greg Abbott. But that has more to do with avoiding a family fight — four potential candidates in the race for president have Texas roots — than with Cruz’s standing in his state’s political establishment. With his education and government experience, Cruz has more in common with his Senate colleagues than he does with the middle-class voters he’s courting.
And then there’s the money: Cruz’s 2012 campaign was successful largely because of support from organizations such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, both based in that anti-establishment hotbed of Washington, D.C.
2. He’s another Obama.
The many conservative voices likening Cruz to President Obama include the Wall Street Journal editorial page, The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said of voters: “I think they’re going to make a rather radical shift away from a young, untested United States senator whose policies have really failed.”
Obama and Cruz, both Harvard-trained lawyers, have plenty in common. Both jumped into presidential races without serving a full term in the Senate. Neither had executive experience. Both can give a terrific speech. Both have origin and citizenship stories that have led some to question their qualifications for office.
Cruz has, unsurprisingly, seized every chance to rebut the comparison, calling Obama a “back bencher” in the Senate who “did not take a leadership role on really issues of any significance.” And he has a point. Aside from the buzz after his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, Obama got little national attention until he jumped into the 2008 presidential race; even his defenders tend to have a hard time naming his accomplishments in the Senate. Cruz, on the other hand, is running on the strength of the attention he’s received for what he’s done in his short time as a senator: bucking party leadership in both chambers, delivering a 21-hour speech on a spending bill and helping lead a government shutdown.
3. Cruz has the tea party locked up.
The tea party loves Ted Cruz, and the press loves to paint him as the tea party candidate. Just three days of recent headlines labeled Cruz a “tea party darling,” a “tea party hawk” and a “tea party agitator.” One of his aides compared the GOP primary to March Madness, telling National Review: “We’re the No. 1 seed in the tea party bracket.” And indeed, it was tea party support that cleared the way for Cruz’s famed upset in the 2012 Texas Senate race.
But on the national stage, Cruz faces competition from other hopefuls with tea party bona fides: Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Rand Paul. Paul is casting himself as the more electable tea party candidate, pointing out that he polls better in a hypothetical matchup with potential Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. A February poll in Texas showed Cruz slightly leading a field of 16 possible GOP candidates, getting 20 percent of the state’s Republican voters (a statistical tie with Walker) and 34 percent of tea party voters (Walker was at 21 percent). But that’s Texas. Paul, who got only 4 percent of the tea party vote in that poll, has his own strong base of tea party support in his home state, Kentucky. National tea party polling is spare and not rigorous, but a year-old online poll of 62,000 activists showed Cruz ahead of Paul by four points, with Carson three points behind Paul.
There is something to the idea that there are two races in the GOP primary: one for conservatives and one for moderates. The winner of the conservative group will have the tea party’s strong support. Cruz might win it, but he doesn’t start with it.
4. He can’t win the GOP nomination.
Cruz had barely announced his candidacy when the “He’ll never win” comments came pouring in. That’s also what they said when he ran for Senate.
His road to the presidential nomination is tougher and more crowded than his path to the Senate was. He faces more than a dozen potential candidates, some vying for the same sort of Republican voters that Cruz needs and some who have attributes that he lacks, such as executive experience or more years in public office. Lack of experience didn’t matter in his Texas race — his only campaign for elected office — because voters were looking for an outsider. This time, it could.
But Cruz’s bid is hardly hopeless. William Buckley and other National Review types wanted George H.W. Bush to be the GOP nominee in 1980, fearing that Reagan couldn’t win; conventional wisdom in 2011 declared that Mitt Romney couldn’t win the nomination. Cruz’s early jump into the contest could give him a head start with the groups he needs to court: evangelicals, tea partyers and libertarians, all of whom could throw their weight behind him. Leaders of the Christian right have already indicated their unhappiness with Jeb Bush and their desire to coalesce around one socially conservative candidate to avoid the divisions of past races.
Cruz might not be palatable to the majority of Americans, but that doesn’t mean he can’t snag the nomination: One poll this month showed that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said it’s more important to have a candidate who stands on conservative principles; only 39 percent said it’s better to have a candidate who can win the White House.
5. Cruz is running for president.
Of course Cruz is running for president. He said so. His campaign is filling out the paperwork. He’s touring places toured only by presidential candidates. And if this thing catches fire, he’d love to have the job.
But Cruz has more in common with Barry Goldwater — who lost in 1964 but remade the modern Republican Party — than with Reagan, who flew that conservative wing of the party into the White House in 1980. Cruz contends that recent candidates such as Romney and John McCain represent the “mushy middle” of the party — and that only strong ideological conservatives will bring enough muscle and excitement to the GOP for the party to beat the Democrats. Every word of his announcement speech (on eliminating the IRS, Obamacare and Common Core) spoke to a particular segment of the party. As Michael Brendan Dougherty points out, any candidate for president at least pays lip service to the decency of the opposition; Cruz has yet to offer a rhetorical lifeline to the left or even the center. Cruz isn’t running for president — he’s running to be the leader of a new GOP.