That was all in his first year. By 2015, he was running for president, surviving the crowded field until he was the last obstacle to Donald Trump’s winning the Republican nomination. A lot of people who found Cruz personally frustrating ended up bolstering him as the alternative to Trump, without success. In 2018, he won reelection to the Senate — by only 2.5 percentage points.
Cruz’s focus on wringing attention out of an attention-choked Washington system hasn’t abated during his second term. After the 2020 election, Cruz repeatedly tried to leverage Trump’s false claims about election fraud, understanding that Trump’s departure might leave a large base of support looking for a new champion. At first, he elevated Trump’s misleading claims about the risk of mail-in voting, then pivoting to attack tech companies for trying to tamp down on similar misinformation.
In January, Cruz formed a coalition of senators who planned to object to the final counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6, an effort that he hyped repeatedly on social media and which culminated in his giving an effusive speech defending his effort — right before the Capitol was overrun by violent protesters who apparently failed to understand the distinction Cruz tried to draw between “actual fraud” and “concerns about fraud.”
Cruz did all of these things because he is ambitious and because it’s helped to elevate him as a national political figure. He stepped into the spotlight and has done everything in his power to stay there. Since January 2012, his face has appeared on the three largest cable news networks for a combined 321 hours — more than six times as much as Texas’s other Republican senator, John Cornyn.
One effect of this is that Cruz is easily recognizable. Meaning that should the junior senator from Texas want to, say, slip off to Cancun for a bit while millions in his state are struggling without electricity, heat or potable water, it becomes trickier than he might have expected.
On Wednesday evening, reports of Cruz heading to Mexico began emerging on social media. One of the first was a tweet at 6:18 p.m. simply reporting that Cruz was seen on his way to Cancun. Shortly before 9 p.m., a photo of a man who looked like Cruz was posted showing him standing near a gate at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Researcher Josh Russell has a list of the tweets as they emerged, showing the man at various points in his journey: in the lounge at the airport, at his gate, on the plane. The photos were scoured for evidence that the guy who looked like Cruz was, in fact, the senator, with amateur detectives noting that his face mask matched one Cruz wore on the Senate floor and even highlighting the Princeton class ring that Cruz wears on his right hand.
The sleuths were right. On Thursday afternoon, Cruz released a statement acknowledging the trip.
Political reporters often hear about how John F. Kennedy’s romantic trysts were an open secret during his administration but that the political and media culture at the time kept them out of the public eye. That may be at least partly apocryphal, but there’s no question that elected officials today can expect less privacy than that enjoyed by politicians in the 1960s. In part that’s a function of the elevated role politics plays in the attention economy relative to 60 years ago. In part, it’s a function of changes in what’s viewed as newsworthy.
But it’s also in part because the country is now riddled with amateur reporters, hundreds of thousands of people who have portable television studios in their pockets. Even if a cable-news network didn’t find Cruz’s movements remarkable, that doesn’t mean that hundreds of people at an airport wouldn’t. Twenty years ago, Cruz might have been able to slip off to Cancun, but not in an era when his activity can be tracked and exposed so quickly. Cruz might also have successfully gone on vacation had he not done everything in his power over the past eight years to ensure that as many Americans as possible knew what he looked like. But even when covered with a face mask, his efforts to be well-known appear to have paid off.
Then there’s that third way in which he might have avoided the scrutiny that accompanies flying to a resort destination in the middle of a massive crisis in his home state: not going to a resort in Cancun when so many Texans were scrambling to figure out how to get water to drink or keep from getting hypothermia.
That’s the problem with the spotlight. Once you’ve pulled it toward you, you don’t get to decide when it shines and when it doesn’t. Cruz wanted to be well-known. He wanted attention.
He’s gotten it.
This article was updated with Cruz’s acknowledgement of the trip.