When Heidi and Ted Cruz went to the Atlanta suburbs to campaign a few weeks ago, she perfectly played the role of political spouse: a loving gaze for her husband as he spoke, hands on the shoulders of their two daughters, beaming smiles for supporters.
A few days earlier, during a solo swing through Missouri, Heidi Cruz made clear that her other identity — hard-charging career woman with ambitions of her own — was never far from her mind.
“I want to tell you, I did take a leave of absence from work,” she told her audience, standing among shiny motorcycles on the sales floor of a Harley-Davidson dealership. “I wouldn’t have given up my job and the time with my girls if I did not really believe in my heart that Ted Cruz would win this election.”
No one has taken on more roles in the Cruz campaign than Heidi Cruz. Most visibly, she is the traditional campaign spouse. But she is also her husband’s chief fundraiser, a surrogate who hopscotches across the country asking voters, one meet-and-greet at a time, for their support — and in private meetings imploring political and faith leaders for theirs.
They are all new roles for Heidi Cruz. On leave from Goldman Sachs in Houston, she has embarked on a journey unlike any she has navigated before — rearranging her entire life and applying her own substantial experience to serve the ambitions of her husband.
Cruz is not the only Republican spouse this cycle with notable professional accomplishments. Mary Pat Christie was a longtime bond trader before quitting after her husband declared his candidacy, and she, too, has helped raise money. Karen Kasich spent nearly 20 years working in public relations, and Frank Fiorina was a telecommunications executive.
But the more apt comparison for Heidi Cruz may be to Hillary Clinton. Since Clinton’s years as a campaign partner and first lady, few political spouses have redirected their own ambitions to the degree that Heidi Cruz has this cycle. And few since Clinton, now trying to follow her husband into the White House, have demonstrated, as Heidi Cruz has, the kind of political talent and experience of her own to prompt speculation among those who hear her speak that she, too, could someday be a formidable candidate.
Shortly after former Texas governor Rick Perry left the contest, a group of Perry donors torn between Cruz and former Florida governor Jeb Bush — and others who weren’t even sure whether they wanted to donate any more money this election cycle — met over breakfast.
It was a way for Cruz to make his pitch to a deep-pocketed audience, but there was a snag: He got stuck in Washington at the last minute because of Senate votes. The host, Mica Mosbacher, called Heidi Cruz.
She charmed the audience with talk both personal and strategic. She left with converts. Mosbacher said a doctor who attended was not sure whether she liked Ted Cruz. She listened to Heidi Cruz and wrote a check.
“I got a lot of emails and calls that it was Heidi who did it,” Mosbacher said. “They said, ‘If he’s married to her. . . . ’ ”
Welcome Wilson Sr., a wealthy Cruz donor, knew Heidi Cruz from Houston’s business community: The two sat on the board of the Greater Houston Partnership. She called him and told him the reasons that she thought the campaign would win. They included the campaign’s robust ground game. She told him that Cruz would be leading in the polls in Iowa in December, a statement that he found “outrageous” but that ended up being true.
“She is the most dynamic female I have ever met, and I mean that,” he said. “She is on point and relentless.”
Cruz, 43, grew up in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the daughter of a dentist and dental hygienist who are Seventh-day Adventists.
When Heidi was 5, her parents signed her up for piano lessons, and she insisted on practicing an hour and sometimes two each night. At age 8, when her parents first enrolled her in school, a family trip to Washington sparked an interest in politics. By fifth grade, Heidi announced that she wanted to go to Harvard Business School.
“I don’t even know how she knew about Harvard Business School. It wasn’t in our world at all,” her mother, Suzanne Nelson, said in an interview. “A good word to describe her is ‘driven.’ I don’t really know what has made her so driven.”
She attended high school at Monterey Bay Academy, an Adventist school in Northern California with a mile-long private beach, and strict rules about curfews and interactions between boys and girls. Heidi Nelson was preppy, popular and always studying.
One year, she ran for student body president. Her campaign poster read, “Heidi Nelson, the auspicious choice,” according to classmate Travis Romero.
“I asked her, ‘Nobody knows what the word “auspicious” is,’ ” Romero said. “She said, ‘Isn’t that great? You get an extra word for your SATs.’ ”
Despite the slogan, Cruz lost. Romero said he endearingly thought of Cruz when he watched the movie “Election,” in which Reese Witherspoon plays an overachieving student running for class president.
Cruz went to Claremont McKenna College and was active with the College Republicans and interested in appointive political office, said her mentor, Edward Haley. She also was intent on a career in business first. She moved to New York after graduation and worked on emerging markets at J.P. Morgan, an area in which she was interested after spending summers in Africa doing missionary work with her parents. She was put on the Latin America desk and taught herself to speak Spanish between 18-hour work days.
Cruz achieved her dream of attending Harvard Business School but turned down a job at Goldman Sachs to work on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. She told the New York Times in 2001 that she had just broken up with a boyfriend of two years. She planned to “forget boys” and “kill myself on the campaign.”
Instead, she met Ted Cruz, who by his own admission turned off campaign colleagues with what he described as a “cocky” attitude. But not Heidi Nelson. She said he reminded her of “a 1950s movie star.” He grilled her on her hopes, aspirations and dreams during their first date. They were married the following year.
She was the star when the couple arrived in Washington, netting jobs at the Treasury Department and then the White House, working as a Latin America director on the National Security Council. Ted Cruz was floundering, and he moved back to Texas to become the state’s solicitor general with hopes of launching a political career. They lived apart for more than a year until she gave up her job and moved to Texas.
After the move, she suffered through a period of depression.
“When I moved to Texas, it really was for Ted, and I wasn’t comfortable with that,” she told The Washington Post in September. She said she recovered with spiritual counseling. She started working at Goldman Sachs in Houston; she was promoted to managing director.
And she began to apply her talents to her husband’s political career.
Heidi Cruz comes off as breezy and fun, chatting with women as if they are old girlfriends, making liberal use of the word “awesome” and doling out hugs to just about anyone who comes her way — the opposite of her husband, who is known for throwing rhetorical bombs.
“Stylistically, I can soften him a little bit,” said Cruz, clad in navy leggings and black flats, with Roberto Cavalli sunglasses perched atop her blond hair.
She now holds her own campaign events, talking up her husband’s values and laying out what the campaign sees as a grass-roots path to victory. She speaks clearly but sometimes haltingly in speeches and is more comfortable working the crowd, complimenting a young girl in Missouri on her butterfly shirt.
She remains the campaign’s top fundraiser, now making many calls from the road instead of from the campaign’s airy Houston headquarters, where she installed a playroom with pillows decorated with raspberry prints for the girls. Cruz said she aims to make 30 calls a day but typically averages 20 to 25; she is calling from the campaign and super PAC lists and trying to persuade donors to give the maximum allowed under federal election law.
“I don’t want to say it’s easy, and I don’t close every deal,” she said. “I think people want to be a part of something that addresses the main issue of the day, number one, which is Washington versus the people.”
She tries to frame the chance people have to support her husband, whether with time, money or a vote, as an investment opportunity. She said she is not hitting up Wall Street.
Ted Cruz told an audience in Winterset, Iowa, on Monday that the couple’s decision to run for president was difficult for his wife.
“Heidi spent a lot of years building a very, very successful career. And when we were deciding whether to run, particularly when you’re parents of young girls, that’s not an easy decision. And she was struggling with it,” he said.
Ted Cruz said his wife was driving, listening to a CD of Christian music sent by her sister-in-law. She was struck by a song about seeking the face of the Lord and pulled over on the freeway and started crying, he said. That moment, he said, “changed her heart,” and she decided that the race was about God, the country and the future.
Now, Heidi Cruz says her main job is to bolster her husband’s candidacy.
“There are women who use their husband’s candidacies for their own” purposes, she said recently while being driven to yet another airport. “I love my life. I love my career. This is not for me. This is for our country.”