Has Ted Cruz peaked?

While Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas has been widely mentioned as a possible candidate for president in 2016, his recent star turn – becoming the face of tea party resistance to Obamacare – has polarized public opinion about him.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, speaks to reporters waiting outside a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans as news emerged that leaders reached a last-minute agreement to avert a threatened Treasury default and reopen the government after a partial, 16-day shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 16, 2013.

Where does Ted Cruz go from here? The freshman Texas senator was the face of tea party resistance to Obamacare during the recent unpleasantness over funding the government and raising the US debt ceiling. That won him plaudits from the conservative side of his party but also embittered his Democratic and establishment Republican enemies. Given that, his future role in Congress itself appears unclear.

Not that he’s sorry about anything that happened. To the contrary, he remains unapologetic about his role in the fight and says he doesn’t care about the enmity he’s earned.

“I’m not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends in the Senate,” Senator Cruz told ABC News’s Jonathan Karl in an on-camera interview.

Nor is he holding out an olive branch to his own chamber’s Republican leadership. Cruz told Mr. Karl that he still believes most of the Senate GOP surrendered rather than fight a battle against Obamacare that could have been won.

“Senate Republicans made the choice not to support House Republicans,” Cruz said.

He was even blunter this week in an interview with a conservative radio station, accusing Senate Republicans of “bombing our own troops.”

Wow, that is fairly tough language to use on folks who are at least supposed to be on your side. In the aftermath of a bruising week for congressional Republicans, it sure looks like Cruz is doing his best to continue irritating his own party leadership. That ensures he’ll have virtually no influence within the Senate itself – not that he probably cares.

The chamber has always been divided between “inside” senators fond of working the levers of legislative power (think LBJ) and “outside” senators who use their office as a position to publicly push issues and develop influence, thus working on the legislative process via outside pressure (Edward Kennedy in his early years).

Cruz, for instance, won’t rule out further attempts to shut down the government when just-approved spending expires in January. But Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said flatly on Thursday in an interview with National Review’s Robert Costa that “a government shutdown is off the table. We’re not going to do it.”

Offered an opportunity to comment on Cruz, Senator McConnell added that he had nothing to say. Translation: We in the Senate GOP leadership will do everything we can to make sure a freshman senator from Texas does not again push the party into traffic and wander away.

Of course, that makes Cruz’s fans like him all the more. Tea party Republicans want to fight, and they see Cruz and his ally Sen. Mike Lee of Utah as among the few Republican senators willing to metaphorically tie themselves to the railroad tracks as the Obamacare Express roars towards the station.

Former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, president of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, laid out this worldview in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Thursday. The costs of Obamacare will wreck the country, Mr. DeMint said, and given the stakes, the fight against it should use every legislative means available.

The government shutdown was not a debacle for the GOP, but a net positive, DeMint argued.

“[Obamacare's] disastrous launch was spotlighted by our defund struggle, not overshadowed, as some contend. With a revived and engaged electorate, Obamacare will now be the issue for the next few years,” he wrote.

Nor should the GOP just focus on winning back the White House and Senate as a better means of repealing the law. Americans should not have to wait three more years for relief, DeMint argued.

Heritage Action and its allies “are thankful for the courageous leadership of people like Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee,” DeMint concluded.

Back home, Cruz’s major financial backers support his actions, too. Unlike his fellow Texas senator, John Cornyn, Cruz did not get big bucks from the state’s business interests. His biggest chunks of cash came from activist groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth, according to the campaign watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics. They’ve hailed his attempts to fight Obamacare.

But in terms of elected office, it’s not too soon to ask if Cruz’s career has peaked. While he’s been widely mentioned as a possible candidate for president in 2016, his recent star turn has polarized public opinion about him.

Since June, his unfavorable rating among Americans in general has doubled, according to Gallup data. He’s now viewed unfavorably by 36 percent of Americans and favorably by 26 percent.

He’s extremely popular among self-described tea party Republicans, according to a Pew survey. They give him a 74 percent favorable rating, up some 27 points since July. But his approval rating among non-tea party Republicans has been falling, with some 31 percent of this group rating him negatively.

Wrapped together, those numbers mean that for 2016, he would at least be a factional candidate with a shot at winning the GOP nomination, but little chance of winning the general election.

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