HOUSTON — Sharon Alford knows what they have been saying about her state’s junior senator up in Washington. Which is why she was standing here, among about 600 people in a sweltering warehouse, holding a hand-made sign that said, “We the people ♥ Ted Cruz.”
“He’s surrounded by enemies up there, and I want to show support for him in Texas,” she said. “I’m just hoping it’s like this around the country.”
Cruz may be the most reviled man in the U.S. Senate at the moment, not least among his Republican colleagues. He was the face and voice of the government shutdown strategy that brought the nation to the brink of default on its debt and left his party with its lowest poll ratings ever, while doing nothing to halt the implementation of the new health-care law.
But back in Texas, there is a different reality.
During the past week, Cruz has been greeted as a conquering hero, with a round of triumphal public appearances and welcome-home rallies such as the one that Alford attended Monday night in Houston, which was hastily arranged by the King Street Patriots tea party group.
Even more extraordinary is the degree to which the freshman senator — who until 2012 had never run for public office — has quickly remade the Texas Republican Party in his own image.
Just about every GOP candidate with aspirations to statewide office in 2014 seems to be styling himself or herself after Cruz. In tight formation, they are moving hard to the right and looking for the next big populist rallying cry — secession, rolling back the state’s liberal immigration laws, impeaching President Obama, amending the Constitution to end the direct election of U.S. senators.
His aura even extends to local races. “Some people call me the Ted Cruz of the city council,” boasted Helena Brown, who won her seat in Houston in 2011 and has proposed solving the city’s fiscal problems by defaulting on its pension obligations.
“Cruz was a once-in-a-generation kind of candidate. A lot of people are trying to re-create that magic,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “Three or four years ago, the model you wanted to follow if you were a Texas politician was Rick Perry.” Perry, the Republican governor of Texas since 2000, has called the idea of shutting down the federal government to stop the health-care law “nonsensical.”
In an interview, Cruz hailed the new style of politics he has inspired as “a tremendously healthy development.” It is a message he is spreading elsewhere, notably in some of the early presidential contest states, including Iowa this weekend.
“The grass roots are energized in Texas and understand they have the power to hold elected officials accountable,” he said.
Open to question is just how representative those grass roots are of a growing and increasingly diverse state .
To understand Texas politics, an important number to keep in mind is 750,000. In a state of 26 million people, that is how many votes it generally takes to prevail in a statewide Republican primary — which is tantamount to being elected, considering that no Democrat has won statewide office here since 1994.
The Lone Star State remains a conservative place, where Cruz’s appeal extends beyond tea party activists. On Tuesday afternoon, for example, he met with small-business owners at the staid Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. Although the session was closed, a half-dozen of those who attended said afterward that Cruz heard nothing but encouragement and support.
One of them was Vince Puente, who owns a document technology firm in Fort Worth. Puente said he had been concerned at first about the consequences of shutting the government and skirting default. “But as we went along, I decided it’s time to take a stand,” Puente said. And besides, he added, “when we did the sequester, they told us the sky was going to fall. I didn’t believe it, because I heard that every time.”
What mystifies members of the Fort Worth Chamber is why officials of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington have been so critical of their senator.
“I do not know,” said Joan Trew, who owns a real estate firm. “They are not in Texas. I hope and pray he can influence some other people.”
Yet Cruz’s growing influence has more than a few Republicans here worried, as they ponder the population changes that could put Texas within reach of the Democrats for the first time in a generation.
Texas is becoming more urban and diverse, with minorities making up the bulk of the population increase. According to the Texas State Data Center, the Hispanic population is expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites by 2020.
Those changes are likely to leave Texas a fainter red than it has been, but not exactly blue, either.
Cruz is “the new model, and I think it’s probably going to be the last model, because it will lead us right into the demographic changes that are occurring and will not serve us well as Texas becomes a purple state,” said veteran Republican political consultant John Weaver.
“There’s no way that playing to the angry crowd is a sustainable path,” added a Republican state legislator, who did not want to be quoted criticizing his party’s biggest rising star. “If [the Cruz forces] misplay it and continue to run into the ditch, then we will hand it to the Democrats.”
Next year promises to be a particularly turbulent one in Texas politics. As Perry retires after the longest tenure of any Texas governor, many Republicans are positioning themselves to move up the escalator to higher office. And on the Democratic side, state Sen. Wendy Davis will bring star power and the national following she gained after staging a filibuster that temporarily delayed passage of the state’s new antiabortion law in June.
Stamina at talking, in fact, is a badge of honor among Texas politicians of both parties. Cruz’s 21-hour speech against the new health-care law on the Senate floor, while not technically a filibuster, was a sensation back home.
To tea party activists, the fact that Cruz’s action didn’t achieve anything is almost beside the point.
“We now know what it looks like to go to the mats," said Catherine Engelbrecht, head of the King Street Patriots.
When Cruz jumped into the 2012 Senate race as the longest of long shots, the Texas GOP establishment barely acknowledged his existence, as it fell into line behind one of its own, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
But after Cruz and the tea party came seemingly out of nowhere to crush Dewhurst in the GOP primary, the lesson every Texas Republican apparently learned was to not let anyone get to his or her right.
Dewhurst himself has become Exhibit A of that principle, as he battles to hold onto his job against at least three other Republicans (all of whom had endorsed him against Cruz in the Senate race last year).
Earlier this month, the lieutenant governor told a tea party group that Obama should be impeached “not only for trampling our liberties, but what he did in Benghazi is just a crime.”
Statements like that are at odds with Dewhurst’s image as a cautious, relatively moderate establishment figure.
“Dewhurst has completely lost his political compass,” said Mark P. Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston. “He appears to be lurching to the right almost blindly.”
Jones said that he is seeing a lot of that lately.
For instance, all four major GOP lieutenant governor candidates have come out for repealing for the state’s landmark 2001 law offering in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. That is the same law that Perry defended during his 2012 presidential bid, saying of those who oppose it: “I don’t think you have a heart.”
Both Dewhurst and challenger state Sen. Dan Patrick had also called for repealing the 17th Amendment, which in 1913 gave Americans the right to elect senators directly rather than having them chosen by legislatures.
And three Republican candidates for state attorney general opposed a recently passed San Antonio ordinance that extended anti-discrimination protection to gays, even though similar laws are in effect in five of the state’s largest cities.
And lieutenant governor candidate Jerry Patterson has taken secession talk one step further by proposing that Texas stay put — but that California, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut be kicked out of the union.
Jones says that many Republicans are trying to follow Cruz’s pattern, but added: “The further the party continues to go down this track, the more likely they are to turn Texas blue earlier. What’s in the individual candidate’s best interest in the short term is not in the party’s long-term interest.”