Ahead of the state’s Republican primary in February of 2016, Donald Trump called an impromptu press conference in the town hall in Hanahan, South Carolina. The venue he selected was a ten-minute drive from the North Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center, where former president George W. Bush was set to speak a few hours later in his first—and ultimately last—appearance on behalf of the doomed presidential campaign of his brother, Jeb. Ostensibly, Trump intended to distract attention from that event and belittle the Bush brothers, which he did. But as the presser proceeded, he set his sights elsewhere: on Texas senator and primary opponent Ted Cruz.
“I think Ted is a very unstable guy,” Trump said, accusing the senator of running smear campaigns against him. “I have never, ever met a person that lies more than Ted Cruz. I have never, ever seen anything like it.” As the news conference drew to a close, I caught Trump’s eye and he called on me. “To clarify,” I asked, “is Ted Cruz off your short list for vice president?” Trump laughed. “No, he would not be on my short list.”
I recalled that exchange while listening to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ninety-minute Instagram Live chat on Monday evening. The New York congresswoman described to her followers how she had feared that she was going to die on January 6 as she hid in her office bathroom from marauders who were prowling the halls of Congress in an attempt to “stop the steal” of the election. Ocasio-Cortez blamed Cruz and Missouri senator Josh Hawley, in part, for persisting in a baseless challenge to the election result and implicitly encouraging the mob outside the Capitol to use violence to try to prevent the certification of Biden electors. She accused the two senators of trying to endear themselves to Trump’s base ahead of the 2024 Republican presidential primaries. And she predicted that their ploy would fail.
“Donald Trump, he runs a cult of personality. That’s not going to transfer to you so quickly and easily,” she said, addressing Cruz and Hawley. She added, “So not only is what they’re doing reckless and dangerous, and yes, unpatriotic, to use their terminology, but it’s just not smart from a political calculation level.”
We normally wouldn’t turn to a democratic socialist from New York to make sense of GOP politics. But AOC may have a point that Cruz, whose office did not respond to a request for an interview, is unlikely to inherit Trump’s mantle. After Trump insulted Cruz’s wife and made baseless accusations against his father, Cruz famously declined to endorse Trump in a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, leaving the stage to jeers and boos. While Cruz ultimately relented and voiced support for Trump two months later—and then became one of his biggest apologists in the Senate—his tumultuous history with the former president looms in Republican voters’ minds.
Late last September, I visited the Johnson County Republican party headquarters in Cleburne, forty minutes south of Fort Worth, and spoke with Donald Wilson, the volunteer coordinator and husband of party chair Robin Wilson. I asked him whether he was worried that Democrats might build on Beto O’Rourke’s near-miss campaign against Cruz in 2018, imperiling Trump and down-ballot candidates in Texas in 2020. Not in the least, he assured me. He explained that what had happened in 2018 was entirely a reflection on Cruz failing at the convention to keep his promise to support the Republican nominee.
“Are you a Texan Texan?” Wilson asked me. “In Texas your word is your bond. If you lie, or you break your word as a politician … we will not vote for you.” He added, “And that’s what happened to Ted Cruz, because Ted Cruz broke his word in 2016.”
Throughout his political career, Texas’s junior senator has sought to craft a narrative about himself as a man of brave and stubborn principle. But others more often view Cruz as operating along a continuum between devious and too clever by half. His slippery maneuvering since the 2020 election has further opened him to criticism from both flanks.
On Thursday, November 5, Donald Trump Jr., after echoing his father’s complaints that Democrats were stealing the election, tweeted that “the total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ is pretty amazing.” By that evening, Cruz was fulminating on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. “I talked with the president this afternoon,” he said, “and I’ll tell you the president is angry and I’m angry and the voters ought to be angry.” A month later Cruz agreed to argue cases seeking to upend the outcome of the election in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the court declined to hear such challenges, the senator’s support of them contributed to the belief among most Republicans that Biden’s victory was illegitimate.
After the riot at the Capitol, the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project began placing “Sen. Cruz: Resign” billboards in Texas (“You lied about the election. The Capitol was attacked”), part of a $1 million campaign targeting him, Hawley, and ten Republican members of the House. But the Republican base in Texas was not swayed. A survey of some 1,300 Texans conducted in mid-January by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston indicated that more than four fifths of Republicans believed there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election and nearly a third supported the storming of the U.S. Capitol. According to the same study, Cruz enjoyed the second highest net favorability rating among Republicans of eleven state and national political leaders tested. Only Trump rated higher.
Days after the inauguration of Joe Biden, however, Cruz started walking back his position on the election results on his popular weekly podcast, Verdict, where the conversation is calmer and more cultivated than on Hannity. He presented Hawley as the heavy whose decision to challenge the Pennsylvania electors made debate in the upper chamber inevitable and left Senate Republicans with “two terrible choices”: either support certification of Biden’s electors and signal to Trump supporters that they didn’t believe voter fraud was real, or oppose certification and cast doubt on the election results, “just because the candidate I was supporting hadn’t won.” Cruz told listeners that he had proposed a middle path, merely seeking to delay certification of the Biden electors until after a ten-day audit had been completed—in his telling, an option that “wouldn’t delay or impact the peaceful transfer of power.” (In Hawley’s version of events, as told to CNN, the Missouri senator said he “was very clear from the beginning that [he] was never attempting to overturn the election.”)
Most telling, Cruz now opined that “President Trump’s rhetoric, I think, went way too far over the line. I think it was both reckless and irresponsible because he said repeatedly, and he said over and over again, he won by a landslide.” He added, “The campaign did not prove that in any court. … And to make a determination about an election, it has to be based on the evidence.”
That same statement, made some weeks earlier, might have marked Cruz as a man of brave and stubborn principle. When Trump still had his Twitter account, it also would have made Cruz a target. On a Verdict reviews page, many supporters expressed feelings of betrayal. “I must admit I was on the Lion Ted train [sic]. It was easy for me to fall for his quick wit and grasp of political events,” wrote one commenter. “Unfortunately he has become just the latest Judas to thrust a dagger in president Trump’s back.”
This is all by now a familiar dilemma for Cruz. Next week, Texas’s junior senator is sure to be a vocal defender of Trump during the Senate impeachment trial, in which opponents will argue that the forty-fifth president incited the mob to lay siege to the Capitol. In the highly unlikely event that the Senate convicts Trump, the body could also vote to bar him from running again for president. It’s an outcome that Cruz might secretly find a most welcome relief.