WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz built his reputation as a conservative flamethrower after leading the government shutdown over Obamacare funding in 2013, cultivating that brand during his presidential campaign and beyond over the past decade.
Now, the Texas Republican is looking to show off some bipartisan credentials as he runs for re-election in a state that is becoming more competitive and gave him a scare in his last race.
In a wide-ranging interview in his Capitol Hill office, Cruz highlighted his work as the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and how he partnered with Speaker Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on legislation require that consumers be informed if their refrigerator or other appliances have recording capabilities.
Cruz touted his work with Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., on a bipartisan bill to fight a potential ban on new or existing gas stoves.
And he spoke of his unlikely partnerships with two other Senate Democrats on the Commerce committee, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Rafael Warnock of Georgia, to help create new interstate highways that will boost commerce and business in their states.
“Oversight is a big bucket” for the committee, Cruz said. “And then the other big bucket is positive bipartisan legislation that can be moved, that can be signed into law, that is pro-jobs and pro-growth. And the Commerce Committee has a long history of passing laws like that.»
The way Cruz sees it, his new position as a ranking member of the Commerce committee will be a boon to his fellow Texans and, in turn, beneficial to his re-election campaign. The panel covers many key industries that have «deep footprints» in the Lone Star State, he said, from space and airlines to telecommunications, technology and energy.
“I think campaigns should be about issues, substance and results,” Cruz said, sitting in his office in the Russell Senate Building, where three of his bills that President Barack Obama signed hang on the wall. “The Commerce Committee has broad jurisdiction over almost half of the American economy. Having the responsibility of being the ranking member of the Commerce Committee is enormously beneficial to Texas.”
“It gives me the ability to fight for 30 million Texans in a way that has a real and meaningful impact,” he added.
Cruz’s new stance comes after he survived a near-loss in his 2018 campaign, beating Democratic rival Beto O’Rourke by a mere 2.6 points in the Republican stronghold. O’Rourke spent his campaign disparaging Cruz as “all talk and no action,” a senator who spent six years shooting partisan arrows and delivering nothing to Texas.
To some Texans, it rang true. Cruz lost independent voters to O’Rourke in that race, according to NBC News exit polls.
Cruz developed a reputation as a pugnacious supporter in his first year when he incited a 17-day government shutdown in 2013 that many Republicans wanted to avoid and failed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Three years later, Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., memorably joked that someone could kill Cruz on the floor of the Senate and no senator would vote to convict him.
Now, facing an unpredictable cycle landing in a presidential election year, Cruz is trying to get ahead of those inevitable attacks from Democrats. But it will be a tricky balancing act to stay true to his right-wing persona while also trying to reach the kinds of undecided voters who nearly pack him up in 2018. Cruz has shown that side of him in recent days by blasting the indictment of former President Donald Trump as the work of a «left-wing Soros prosecutor» who «is mocking the rule of law.»
In his successful 2022 re-election campaign, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock stormed Georgia touting his work with Cruz to beef up the I-14 corridor to the south, often drawing astonishment from his liberal crowds.
Now, it’s Cruz’s turn to do the same.
Cruz remembered receiving the bill at the finish line. “Tom Carper from Delaware said, ‘Well, if Cruz is for it and Warnock is for it, we should all be for it,’ and he went on to roar!”
And last year, Cruz and Luján successfully incorporated language into a spending package designating a portion of the Ports-to-Plains Corridor, from Laredo, Texas, to Raton, New Mexico, as a future interstate route, a critical step. to add the 830-mile stretch to the US interstate highway system, the couple has unfolded a separate bill that would name the corridor Interstate 27.
“My experience with Senator Cruz is that we have always worked together,” said Luján, who for two terms served as campaign manager for the House Democrats.
After Luján suffered a stroke last year, he said Cruz often visited to check on him. “It’s just a reminder, say hello to people, get to know them,” Luján said. «You never know where you’re going to find partnerships.»
‘Ted is Ted’
But skeptical Democrats on the Commerce panel still view Cruz as a partisan attack dog. When asked about Cruz’s bipartisan work on the refrigerator and appliance privacy bill, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, literally rolled his eyes.
“I just haven’t seen any evidence that Ted has changed,” Schatz said. “There isn’t one of us who doesn’t have a bipartisan bill or two. The question is: How do you behave on a day-to-day basis? And I just haven’t seen a big change. Maybe I’m wrong and I’d love to be proven wrong, but so far it looks like Ted is Ted.»
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, was more blunt: “Cruz is one of the most virulent, least productive, bombastic and self-absorbed members of the United States Senate. The idea that he is a productive working member is ridiculous to the people of his status.” Bergstein said the committee will «look for opportunities» to put Republicans on the defensive «in states like Texas.»
At times, Cruz offered a broad definition of bipartisan successes, including the sinking of two of Biden’s nominees, for which he takes credit. Last month, Phil Washington, Biden’s choice to head the Federal Aviation Administration, dropped out of his nomination after Cruz attacked him for being unqualified on aviation safety issues and Democrats couldn’t muster enough support within their ranks. rows to get your nomination out of the Trade panel.
Weeks earlier, Gigi Sohn, Biden’s pick for the Federal Communications Commission, also withdrew her nomination after all Republicans and a handful of Democrats threatened to reject her. Cruz had pointed out that Sohn had made donations to a group that had attacked some key senators, including Manchin and Sinema.
“At the end of the day, the Republicans agreed and several Democrats agreed with us as well,” Cruz said.
2024 ‘will not be boring’
Cruz’s re-election prospects will depend in part on who his party’s presidential candidate is. The Republican margin of victory in Texas has shrunk from 16 points in the 2012 presidential election to 9 points in 2016 to less than 6 points in 2020. However, Cruz, Trump’s runner-up in the 2016 race, is determined to remain agnostic in Primary 2024.
When asked what advice he would give to Trump’s rivals, Cruz chuckled. “I’m not in the business of giving advice,” she said. “To the candidates running for president right now: I have every confidence that we will have a wild and confusing primary. My focus is running for re-election to the Senate in the state of Texas. And I am absolutely certain that the presidential race will not be boring.”
Meanwhile, several former Cruz employees have gone to work for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom many see as the leading Republican alternative to Trump. The senator said that he simply speaks of the quality of his political team. “We got second place in 2016,” he said. “We came very, very close to winning outright. That team is tremendously talented.»
Cruz and DeSantis, a former member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, were first elected to Congress in 2012 and spent the next several years as rioters. When asked if he thinks DeSantis would make a good president, Cruz smiled.
“Nice try,” said the normally talkative senator. «I think the voters will make that determination.»