Ted Cruz, pulling an upset, is poised to boost tea party ranks in Senate

Ted Cruz, the new darling of the tea party, easily won his primary runoff against Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and is favored to win in November. He could become a spokesman for no-compromise conservatives.

Johnny Hanson/Houston Chronicle/AP
Holding his daughter Caroline, US Senate candidate Ted Cruz and and his wife, Heidi, holding their daughter, Catherine, appear before a cheerful crowd after Cruz defeated Republican rival, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a runoff election for the GOP nomination for the US Senate seat vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison, Tuesday, July 31, in Houston.

Ted Cruz was tea party before there was a tea party.

And in toppling Texas’s lieutenant governor for the state’s Republican nomination for US Senate Tuesday, Mr. Cruz certainly had the full force of the tea party movement supporting him with cash, social media, and people power. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum campaigned for him.

But whether Cruz, the prohibitive favorite to win election in November, fully positions himself as a “tea party senator” in Washington remains an open question. Because Cruz has the potential to be more than “just” a tea party senator.

He would join Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida as the second Hispanic Republican in the Senate, and, just as important, he would bring to the table a formidable résumé as a legal eagle: Ivy League pedigree, Supreme Court clerk, Texas solicitor general. He argued nine cases before the high court, including successfully defending the constitutionality of Texas’ Ten Commandments monument.

While an undergrad at Princeton University in the early 1990s, Cruz was a champion debater. So expect some high-level rhetoric on Capitol Hill, assuming he gets there. But Cruz’s role in the Senate could depend on how America’s politics evolve, analysts say.

“He’s an ideologue, in the Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey camp,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, referring to three of the Senate’s most conservative members. “If our politics continues to be as partisan and ideological as it is, he will be a spokesman for the principled-conservative, no-compromise wing of the Republican Party.”

Mr. Jillson sees Cruz as filling the role that Phil Gramm played when the Republican represented Texas in the Senate from 1985 to 2002 and was a national conservative spokesman. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the retiring Republican senator whom Cruz would replace, has focused more on serving the needs of Texas.

But Republican strategists hope that Cruz, barely into his 40s, can also serve as a role model for young Hispanics, both in Texas and nationally. Though Texas is solidly Republican in statewide elections, its large and growing Hispanic population could present a ticking demographic time bomb to the state’s GOP. Texas is second largest state in the country by population, and the Republican Party cannot afford to lose its 38 electoral votes.

In 2008, Barack Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote nationally, and he's beating Republican challenger Mitt Romney by some 40 percentage points in polls of Hispanics.

“[Cruz is] a dynamic guy. He’s young, Latino, a strong conservative,” said Jeb Bush Jr., the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and his Mexican-born wife, in an interview with Politico. “It helps politically in Texas to have a Hispanic senator, as the demographics shift around the country.”

The Democratic Party, too, is intensely mindful of its image among Hispanics – including in Republican Texas. This week, the Democrats announced that San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro – a young, dynamic Mexican-American – will be the keynote speaker at their national convention in early September. Latino Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is convention chair.

In a Monitor interview in 2009, Cruz spoke proudly of his Cuban heritage. His father, he said, fought in the Cuban revolution as a teenager, then was thrown in prison and tortured. He eventually escaped Cuba and made his way to Austin, Texas, with $100 sewn into his underwear.

The story of American immigration is the “basic DNA of this nation,” Cruz said. “We have for centuries been billed as a people who value freedom and opportunity above all else. That also embodies the themes I think, as Republicans, we ought to be articulating.”

Cruz also spoke of the Hispanic community as “fundamentally conservative” in its approach to faith, family, and country, and he rejected the idea that Hispanics want government handouts. They want the social and economic mobility that allows anyone to achieve the American dream, he said.

The challenge for Cruz – and for Senator Rubio, who is also Cuban-American – is to help the Republicans expand their reach into the larger components of the Hispanic vote, dominated by Mexican-Americans. The policy that grants Cubans automatic legal status in the United States as soon as they step on American soil creates some tension between Cuban-Americans and other Latinos who don’t have that right.

While Florida has a large Cuban-American population, Texas does not. Just how well Cruz does in November among Mexican-American voters and other non-Cuban Latinos will bear watching.

In his victory speech in Houston Tuesday night, Cruz credited tea party leaders with helping him score an upset over the establishment favorite in the GOP primary runoff, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

He said that if he wins in November, he will work to repeal Mr. Obama’s health-care reform and “stop the out-of-control spending and turn around our national debt,” the Associated Press reports.

Cruz’s victory represents one of the biggest victories in the young tea party movement’s history. He won the primary runoff by 14 percentage points, after coming in second to Mr. Dewhurst in the May primary, 45 percent to 34 percent. Under Texas election law, Dewhurst’s lack of a majority forced the runoff.

Dewhurst outspent Cruz 3 to 1 and was backed by much of the Texas Republican establishment, including Gov. Rick Perry. But it wasn’t enough to turn back the energized outsider, much the way Rubio beat then-Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida in his Senate primary in 2010.

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