Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) now says it was “obviously a mistake” to leave his home state of Texas in the middle of a historic deadly winter storm in favor of a vacation in Cancun.

If you missed the details: Cruz hustled back to Houston on Thursday after being photographed boarding a plane to Mexico on Wednesday, while millions in Texas were without power, heat or water. Cruz quickly deployed the family man defense, saying he made the trip at the request of his young daughters, and that the flight amounted to “wanting to be a good dad.”

The backlash was swift, with even conservative media outlets, including Fox News, Breitbart and the Drudge Report, criticizing him. He was accused of flaunting his privilege and fleeing his state in a time of need.

But Cruz’s few defenders — and even a few of his critics on the Democratic side — claimed that even if Cruz had stayed home in Houston, he either couldn’t, or wouldn’t have done much to help anyway.

“It’d be fine if he remained in Cancun,” Democrat Chris Turner, a Texas state representative, said on CNN. “He doesn’t do anything for us in Texas or in Washington, so I don’t know that we’re going to notice when he comes back.”

Why not just make a few Zoom calls from Cancun?

Cruz himself started to answer that question Thursday in an interview on Fox News.

“The crisis here in Texas — you need to be here on the ground,” Cruz said, pushing back on host Sean Hannity’s assertion that he could have teleworked from Mexico. “As much as you can do by phone and Zoom, it’s not the same as being here.”

Part of the job of an elected official is to set an example. They’re often seen handing out supplies, or volunteering at places of refuge. Cruz’s 2018 election opponent, former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), who doesn’t even hold elected office any more, said on Twitter Friday that his efforts to use his platform as a well-known politician to organize phone banks to check in with Texas senior citizens resulted in 784,000 welfare check calls being made to the state’s elderly population, connecting citizens with food, water and warming centers.

The Texas power grid failure that left millions without power during the week of Feb. 15 prompted calls for a system more resilient to extreme weather. (The Washington Post)

And while being “on the ground” while your state faces a weather disaster might seem like Politics PR 101, it isn’t just about appearances, according to Matt Dennis, a communications consultant with CRD Associates and former congressional press aide.

“There are official things that you need to be doing in terms of coordination of federal resources, but there’s also a lot of outreach you can be doing that isn’t just performative,” Dennis said. “It’s meaningful when an elected official feels people’s pain and sees what they are going through.”

President Biden approved disaster funding for Texas on Sunday, and while that allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin providing fuel, water, blankets and other resources, members of Congress know their districts well and have a role in helping to direct those resources. It’s possible a Congress member’s staff could help direct those resources — but a staffer isn’t a substitute for the actual elected official, Dennis says.

“It’s always more effective when the senator is making those calls than when their staff is,” he said. “A senator can get through to the head of FEMA, or to the White House, when their staff might not be able to.”

And that kind of communication can be critical when things like the electrical infrastructure are out of commission.

But what about the resources a senator might use?

A senator doesn’t actually require a whole lot of additional resources to get things done. Most senators have multiple district offices (Cruz has six, according to his Senate website), with dedicated staff whose job it is to respond to constituents’ problems and concerns — normally things like helping people who aren’t getting their Social Security checks, need help getting a passport, or can’t get the IRS on the phone to resolve tax disputes. During large-scale emergencies, though, those offices can become key links between communities and elected officials distributing resources.

In limited instances, a member of Congress might require a security detail, but not on a level that would significantly impact a local police force’s ability to do its job. Cruz is often pictured without a security detail; he didn’t have one when he left for Cancun, though two officers escorted him off the plane when he returned to Houston. But ultimately it’s not an argument that holds water.

And at the end of the day, there’s always space for elected officials to help out in a large-scale disaster.

“I’ve been in public service for 20yrs, 12 elected,” Texas state Rep. Armando Walle wrote on Twitter. “You have to be present, be aggressive and work your ass off for your people. You stay on the phones w/ Mayors, County Judges, Governor so that when resources are distributed your community is not left out.”