SAN ANTONIO — Before Sen. Ted Cruz launched his 2018 reelection bid, he had to face some difficult conversations about his last campaign.
Major donors and activists alike were aggrieved that the Republican from Texas had declined to endorse Donald Trump after their bitter primary fight ended at the party’s 2016 presidential nominating convention, according to nearly a dozen people familiar with the concerns. Supporters worried that he had put his White House aspirations ahead of Texas and the GOP. Business and civic leaders wanted to see signs that he was listening more to their needs.
Many “voiced our disapproval,” said Robert McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans football team and a longtime Cruz donor who described the senator as a “brilliant young man” with a bright future in the Senate. “His focus was more on the presidential race than on being a good senator. I think he’s learned from that experience.”
It was a period of reckoning for a first-term senator who had envisioned himself quickly attaining greater political heights. In its wake, Cruz — once the face of the opposition and Trump’s chief GOP rival — has recast himself as an ally of a president who may be more popular among Texas Republicans than he is.
In the midst of a reelection campaign on track to be the closest Senate race in Texas in more than three decades, Cruz has largely relinquished the role of anti-establishment agitator. Once propelled by promises to upend Washington, he now spends his time on more-local fare — redrawing flood-plain maps along the Gulf Coast, expanding airport runways in suburban Dallas and reauthorizing federal spending on NASA, a home-state favorite.
Before a standing-room-only crowd at the Barn Door Restaurant in San Antonio earlier this month, the senator paced back and forth in his cowboy boots and dress slacks and ticked off a list of “Texas heroes” — the gun owner who intervened in a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, the “rednecks in Bass boats” who ventured into the floodwaters of Houston last summer rescuing stranded victims of Hurricane Harvey, a veteran from San Antonio who served 40 years in the military, including a tour in Iraq.
“That’s Texas,” Cruz declared, pausing for emphasis. “That’s who we are.”
Six years ago, Cruz was on the attack, an outsider railing against the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama and even fellow Republicans he accused of betraying their conservative followers. He called Washington “fundamentally broken,” made up of a “bipartisan coalition of career politicians.”
That rhetoric has largely fallen away, noted Hal Lambert, a Fort Worth money manager and longtime Cruz donor.
The change in Cruz is “as much what he’s not saying,” Lambert said. “Sometimes in the past he’d be very vocal about certain things. Now, he’s more supportive” of the party and its platform.
There are no longer barbs at Republican leaders in the Senate, no calls to shut down the federal government and no shots at President Trump, whose election, Cruz once warned, could cause the country to “plunge into the abyss.” Instead, in a laudatory write-up in Time magazine’s annual Time 100 list, Cruz recently praised the president as “a flash-bang grenade thrown into Washington by the forgotten men and women of America” — words he might have used to describe himself when he first arrived in D.C.
In an interview, Cruz dismissed the idea that fellow Republicans had chided him as being distant from Texas, noting the more than 500 events he has held across the state of 28 million people since taking office.
But he acknowledged that his focus has shifted since 2016. The adjustment was appropriate, he said, because Republicans now control Congress and the White House, giving him and his party a historic opportunity to promote the policies they could not achieve during Obama’s presidency.
Obama was “pushing policies that I believe were very harmful to Texas,” Cruz said. “And so I viewed my role as leading the loyal opposition and doing everything I could to stop policies to hurt Texans and hurt Americans.”
It has been a necessary reinvention for an ambitious politician who is expected to seek the presidency again some day, say many who know Cruz.
But some Texans warn his reinvention could exacerbate perceptions of the senator as a political animal.
“He’s managed to annoy everybody,” George Seay, a Dallas investor and major Republican donor, said of Cruz’s shifting posture toward the president.
One warning sign for the senator: Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) were more popular among Texans than Cruz in a recent poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune.
Penny Oyler, an artist from New Braunfels, Tex., and a self-described “die-hard Trumpster,” said she was wary of Cruz before he fully embraced the president.
Now, “I like Ted Cruz just fine,” said Oyler, who was wearing a bedazzled Make America Great Again hat and a flannel shirt she customized with fringe from an old bedspread, a likeness of Hillary Clinton and the words “American Horror Story.”
That ambivalence among GOP voters could prove to be an obstacle for Cruz in November.
“He wasn’t my first choice” in 2016, said Brad Binversie, 30, a financial adviser in San Antonio who typically votes Republican but has not decided whom he will vote for in the Senate race. “His approach was not as relatable as some of the other candidates in the Republican presidential primary, because of the tone he sometimes used.”
Cruz’s national ambitions have been a major target of his Democratic challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke. A three-term congressman who outraised the senator 2 to 1 in the first three months of the year, O’Rourke said he plans to visit all 254 Texas counties, and he is starting to draw large crowds in small towns. On a recent weekend, he launched a 500-mile road trip from Austin to Amarillo.
“When did Ted Cruz last hold a town hall in Waco or Pecos or Austin or Amarillo?” O’Rourke asked in a phone interview from Austin. (A spokeswoman for Cruz’s office said he has held public events in those cities or nearby.) “He hasn’t. His running for the presidency, his ideological extremism, his putting his career and his party over his country and the constituency he was sworn to serve in Texas has come at a terrible cost to our state.”
A Quinnipiac University poll in April put O’Rourke just three points behind Cruz. In that poll, Cruz logged lackluster ratings for job-approval (47 percent) and favorability (46 percent), as well as low numbers among independents and voters ages 18 to 34.
Still, most analysts say Cruz retains the advantage in deep-red Texas. That same poll showed Cruz well ahead of O’Rourke on his handling of key issues, including the economy, guns and immigration — a revealing measure of the conservatism of Texas voters, according to Quinnipiac’s Peter Brown. And the Cook Political Report has rated Cruz’s seat “likely Republican.”
In March, about 50 percent more voters cast ballots in the state’s Republican primary than in the Democratic primary — and in the state’s majority-Hispanic counties, at least 40 percent of those who turned out voted Republican, according to Cruz’s pollster Chris Wilson, who dismisses the idea that O’Rourke might ride a “blue wave” in November in such a conservative state.
Cruz derides O’Rourke as a far-left liberal who is out of step with Texas on issues such as immigration and health care, but he warns that Republicans need to be wary of complacency.
“In Texas, there are a whole lot more conservatives than there are liberals,” Cruz told reporters at the San Antonio appearance. “But that means in November, conservatives have got to show up.”
Cruz is now seeking out local leaders he had not previously encountered as senator. He recently met for the first time with delegations from McKinney, Tex., and from the governing board of the Port of Victoria, an inland shipping hub between Corpus Christi and Houston.
He spoke at the Humans to Mars Summit at George Washington University, another plug for the state’s aerospace industry. And during an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” Cruz managed to parlay questions about the release of U.S. prisoners from North Korea into an extensive pitch for the ethanol refinery industry — a huge priority for Texas energy companies.
“His political vector in terms of representing the state of Texas was misaligned, and I think he heard that from a lot of people,” said Seay, the Dallas investor. “Politically he has repositioned himself, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Cruz, a longtime critic of federal largesse, also embraced federal disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey, which battered Houston last year — after he opposed a similar effort for the northeastern states struck by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, critics noted.
The senator still talks about limited government, defending the Constitution, fully repealing the Affordable Care Act, his unqualified support for the National Rifle Association and his support for Trump’s selection of conservative federal judges — including Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, whose Supreme Court appointment Cruz takes some credit for.
Before Cruz finally endorsed Trump in the fall of 2016, he said, he wanted “assurances” that Trump would appoint a “conservative jurist” to replace the late Antonin Scalia. The result was a list of possible nominees that included Gorsuch, Cruz said.
Since then, the praise for the Republican leadership and the president’s agenda has flowed almost continuously — albeit sometimes without invoking Trump’s name directly.
“We had an incredible year last year,” Cruz said in San Antonio. “We came together, we unified, and we delivered terrific results. Tax cuts, less regulations, repealing the Obamacare individual mandate, rebuilding the military, confirming strong constitutionalist judges — all of those were big, big victories. So let’s not waste one minute of one day that we have these majorities. Let’s keep delivering results.”
Some of Cruz’s words seem intended to pull the thorn out of his own party’s side, the one he seemed to revel in sticking there before.
“Sour grapes doesn’t help the party,” said Bob Green, 68, a retired inspector of medical equipment who traveled from his home in Austin to hear Cruz speak in San Antonio recently — and liked what he heard. “All it does is create divisiveness, and we’ve had enough of that.”
Alice Crites and Anu Narayanswamy in Washington contributed to this report.