After running as the archetypal outsider in earlier campaigns, Ted Cruz has leaned on his establishment connections to win reelection in Texas.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rode an anti-Washington wave into the Senate in 2012, became a disruptive outsider in the chamber the next year, and ran against the establishment when he sought the presidency in 2016.
But when his reelection campaign wobbled earlier this year under pressure from upstart Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Cruz leaned hard on a new strategy: the inside track.
Cruz’s TV ads have touted his record bringing home billions in federal relief spending after Hurricane Harvey, highlighting “bipartisan” tax relief for those affected by the storm. Cruz’s Texas colleague, Sen. John Cornyn — whom Cruz declined to endorse in 2014 when Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, faced a primary challenge — headlined a six-figure fundraiser for Cruz in Washington. And Cruz has leaned on help from the highest echelons of the Republican Party, campaigning with Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. in Texas recently and getting a commitment from President Donald Trump for a future event.
Cruz remains as conservative as ever, but he sanded down some of the sharp edges on his personality and political strategy in the Senate last year, working within his party on Obamacare repeal and other legislative efforts instead of from the outside as he had in 2013. Now, Cruz’s insider connections are powering his effort to return for a second term.
“It would be disingenuous for Cruz to campaign as an outsider when he’s in there in the thick of things,” said Dave Carney, a veteran Republican strategist who worked with Cruz’s GOP opponent in 2012 before briefly working with him in 2016.
“He was talking about the dysfunction of Washington, that nothing good was happening from his perspective, and he was going there to shake things up,” Carney added. “There’s no question he shook things up. Now he’s outlining what he’s delivered in the shakeup.”
There’s another reason for Cruz’s insider turn. O’Rourke, who is drawing big crowds and raising even bigger money from a grassroots army of supporters, has seized Cruz’s stylistic sweet spot — running not just against Cruz but against the political system in general as he seeks to make up a deficit in the polls.
“It seems to me Beto has become the Ted Cruz of the general election,” said one Republican consultant in Texas, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “He’s running almost a Ted Cruz style of race in the sense of the way Ted ran with the primary [in 2012].”
But Cruz has responded. While O’Rourke raised a record $38 million last quarter, Cruz brought in a more-than-passable $12 million, an impressive haul that’s allowed him to narrow a TV spending gap that grew earlier this year. Cornyn’s fundraiser netted six figures, and multiple events with Trump Jr. in Dallas pulled in nearly half a million dollars. Three recent polls of the race showed Cruz at or above 50 percent, and leading O’Rourke by a comfortable margin.
Still, many Republicans were caught off guard by O’Rourke’s summer surge, and they grew nervous when the race appeared more competitive.
“I think he needs all the help he can get, and he’s asking for it,” said a veteran Republican operative from Cruz’s home base in Houston. “He’s never done that before.”
(Cruz’s campaign declined multiple requests to make him available for an interview.)
A Republican lobbyist in Texas, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said Cruz’s outreach wasn’t easy at first, given the frosty relationships he had with some state political figures whose support he had never wanted or needed before. But the lobbyist said most of the party has warmed up to Cruz and gotten fully behind his reelection bid.
“It was a little slow warming up, but one thing about Cruz is he sticks to the game plan,” the lobbyist said. “His game plan was to cultivate them and over time, and over the last couple years, he’s made inroads. It’s been to his advantage. He couldn’t have stayed where he was and get reelected.”
Not everyone agrees with the notion that Cruz has changed. Mark Miner, a veteran operative in the state who worked for former Gov. Rick Perry, said Cruz is the same firebrand as the one who defeated the establishment favorite in his 2012 primary.
“Ted Cruz has managed to remain an outsider while he’s in elected office,” Miner said.
But David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth — one of Cruz’s earliest political allies, which aided his primary campaign in 2012 — called Cruz’s transformation a “smoothing of the sharp edges a bit.” He pointed out that the Club, an anti-tax organization, urged members of Congress to vote against the Hurricane Harvey relief Cruz pushed so hard for and now touts on the trail. McIntosh said it was wise of Cruz to launch his campaign ads on the issue.
Scott Reed, the senior political strategist from the establishment-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Cruz went on a “charm offensive” to woo local chamber chapters around Texas in an effort to win support from the business community, which has been receptive.
“There’s no doubt he needed to do redefining after the 2016 election, but welcome to politics,” Reed told POLITICO. “I wouldn’t say it was tough, but it took work. And to his credit, he rolled up his sleeves and went and did it.”
The willingness of Cruz’s former adversaries to aid his campaign stretches to the White House. Cruz and Trump famously traded bitter personal attacks during the presidential race — Trump retweeted a supporter mocking Cruz’s wife and linked Cruz’s father to John F. Kennedy’s assassin without evidence, leading Cruz to call Trump a “pathological liar” and a “serial philanderer.”
But the president has been an eager ally to Cruz since then. James Dickey, the Texas GOP chairman, told POLITICO that during his first time meeting Trump, in July 2017, the president told him he was “100 percent” behind Cruz — long before O’Rourke became a national sensation and Republicans of all stripes rode in to aid Cruz’s campaign.
Still, Cruz has faced questions throughout this campaign about his newfound positive relationship with Trump. In the first and so-far only debate of the campaign, Cruz defended working “hand in hand” with the president, calling it the only way to be effective in the Senate.
“Yes, I could have chosen to make it about myself, to be selfish and say my feelings are hurt so I’m going to take my marbles and go home, but I think that would have been not doing the job I was elected to,” Cruz said.