Musings: ambition kills

by | Jan 27, 2023 | Musings, Politics

Welcome back to Musings. We’ve missed you, dear readers.

It’s long been said that the United States Senate is populated with people who steadfastly believe they will one day be President of the United States. 

No one exemplifies that axiom better than Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who burst onto the political scene as an insurgent challenger for the Senate in 2012 before building his resume almost entirely around placating the Tea Party movement with his eyes on the 2016 Presidential primary. 

While Cruz would eventually make that 2016 race, surging to a win in the Iowa Caucus before being routed by eventual nominee Donald Trump across the rest of the map, his ambition to leapfrog from a first term in the United States Senate to the White House came at the expense of his constituents. 

Throughout his flashy and combative first term, Cruz was on the vanguard of getting absolutely nothing done, going so far as to force a government shutdown to prove a political point, which eventually triggered the once unthinkable: a credit downgrade for the United States government.

Instead of seeking sensible solutions to pressing problems facing Texans, like expanding Medicaid to give a massive number of Texans healthcare they badly need, Cruz fought the Obama Administration at every turn, hustling harder to get on Fox News than to get home to the voters that needed him to take action.

And it was Cruz’s ill-fated bid for the presidency in 2016 that set him on a glide path to perpetually disappoint his home state. While he was able to capture a victory in the Iowa Caucus, he got trounced by the eventual nominee and former President Donald Trump throughout most of the rest of the contest.

Trump didn’t just extract his pound of flesh from his rival at the ballot box, he absolutely savaged Cruz with some of the most vitriolic insults we’ve seen in presidential politics, which is truly saying something.

The disgraced former president, who attempted to incite an insurrection with a notable assist from Cruz, accused Cruz’s father of participating in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and repeatedly insulted the appearance of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, in the press and on national television.

Cruz attempted to launch a counter Trump’s vulgarity with tough talk, to mostly comedic effect. He puffed out his chest at a press conference and pointed into the camera to speak directly to Trump, but the image of the bookish Cruz came across as feeble, and his protestations to Trump’s nomination rang hollow when he agreed to speak at the 2016 Republican National Convention in an act of supposed party unity.

Cruz never fully recovered from his failed attempt at a star turn on the national stage, and quickly cozied up more closely to Trump, becoming a loyal foot soldier to an increasingly unhinged tyrant, nearly paying the price politically back home.

In 2018, Beto O’Rourke came within just 200,000 or so votes of toppling Cruz and sending him into early retirement. Cruz was able to hang on by the skin of his teeth, but his ability to relate to Texas voters and appeal to them has been highly in question ever since.

As 2024 grows closer, questions continue to swirl around Cruz’s future. He’s made no secret of the fact that he deeply longs to run for president again, and with a growing list of prominent Republicans attempting to distance themselves from Donald Trump, there are growing calls for a competitive Republican race in 2024.

That creates an interesting dilemma for Cruz, who went so far to carry Trump’s water that he was willing to argue in favor of overturning the 2020 elections in front of the Supreme Court, and he became one of the ringleaders of the far-right effort to block certification of the election during a joint session of Congress.

We all know what happened next: Trump riled up an angry mob at a rally and directed them to march to the Capitol, where they attempted a violent insurrection that cost Americans their lives and embarrassed our country across the globe.

Should Cruz come home and run for re-election in 2024, or should he take a gamble on entering the 2024 presidential primaries as a sort of Diet Coke alternative to Donald Trump? 

Re-election is no sure thing for Cruz, despite Governor Greg Abbott defeating Beto O’Rourke by a wider-than-expected margin in 2022. Is it worth gambling on losing a primary to a firebrand like Dan Patrick or a rising star like Dan Crenshaw? Or could he suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of a rising Democratic star like Rep. Colin Allred or Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo?

And how could Cruz possibly challenge Trump, with whom he’s walked the rhetorical plank in lockstep for nearly a decade now?

And what becomes of his Senate seat if Cruz does, indeed, take the plunge and run for president? Statewide primaries in Texas are few and far between, and the battle for the Republican nomination would likely be a crowded – and heated – affair that could draw combatants from every corner of Republican life. 

Everyone from Crenshaw to former Land Commissioner George P. Bush could run from the supposedly moderate flank of the party, with a lengthy list of far-right figures like Allen West and Don Huffines potentially waiting in the wings to take another long shot at public office.

And what becomes of the two biggest names in Texas government if Cruz abdicates his Senate seat? In 2012, Cruz rose to the upper chamber by defeating then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a well-liked and respected establishment conservative, in the Republican primary.

Dewhurst was a longtime veteran of statewide office who was widely regarded as having “waited his turn,” to reach for the highest elected office in federal government outside the Oval Office. Cruz defeating Dewhurst didn’t just send himself to the Senate, it triggered a new era of Texas politics where primary challenges against incumbents became de rigueur, pouring gasoline on the deepening political divisions in the state.

What would Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick make of an open Senate seat? Patrick has said this will be his final term as Lieutenant Governor, and while the former shock jock could go back to radio or take on work as a television pundit, his own ambitions are no secret.

Patrick was rumored to have been considered for a cabinet position by Trump, and he is an earned media workhorse, frequently appearing on Fox News to criticize the Biden administration or stump for far-right policy proposals. 

Patrick’s presence as the voice of the far-right in Texas has caused nearly a decade of political headaches for Abbott, a man widely regarded to have waited his turn in his own right. Abbott served on the state Supreme Court and as Attorney General before replacing Rick Perry, who complicated his own legacy as the longest-serving governor in Texas history with his own rightward lurch in his own failed efforts to become president, and was widely seen as an establishment conservative, particularly in comparison to Patrick.

But as Abbott watched Patrick steal his thunder at home and Cruz seized his place on the national stage, he just couldn’t stand the FOMO. With conservatives building a robust political operation that was upending primary races across the state and country, Abbott began to position himself as a leader of conservative policy movements nationally.

In an era where public education has struggled mightily and the state has faced everything from droughts to a massive and preventable failure of our electric grid, Abbott has steadfastly focused on the type of red meat policy proposals that Republican primary voters love, but that don’t produce useful or tangible results for the state that he governs. 

It’s well known that Abbott wants to be president, but he faces a brutal reality in the publicly available polling, in which he usually hovers at or well under 1% of the vote. Cruz doesn’t fare much better, with both trailing Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a much younger conservative who towers over potential 2024 primary opponents right now by incredibly wide margins.

With the Texas Legislature back in session, all eyes will be on Abbott and the moves that he makes with an emboldened conservative majority after a brutal round of gerrymandering. Will he continue pushing to build his national profile in the hopes that Trump will exit the presidential race and create a vacuum in which he can compete with Cruz? Does the old Abbott make a comeback, moderating the legislative agenda to appeal to business interests? 

And what will Cruz do? Will he barrel ahead with a 2024 Senate re-election that is no sure thing, or take a bigger risk in an effort to achieve his longtime dream of being the Republican presidential nominee? Will voters forgive the senator for participating in an insurrection and abandoning the state during a historic emergency as the state froze and hundreds died?

There’s always the known unknown path for Cruz, who in addition to accomplishing nothing for his constituents has spent the last several years expanding his own media presence, with podcasts, books and television appearances aplenty. With reports that some conservative commentators are commanding eight-figure salaries to work with right-wing media networks, could Cruz put his eyes on the exit in favor of a lucrative opportunity to reward his outlandishness? 

Only time will tell, but there is a growing bench of talented Democrats who could mount a credible campaign against Cruz. Allred, from the Dallas area, is often talked about as a potential statewide candidate who could help galvanize Black voters across the state. Houston’s Lizzie Fletcher is often mentioned in the same breath, having first won office alongside Allred in 2018. And there is always the possibility that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who has won two tough races in a row in the state’s largest county, could seek higher office

One name that has surfaced in recent speculation is State Senator Roland Gutierrez, whose leadership in the wake of the Uvalde shooting drew praise from Democrats at home and across the country. Gutierrez himself hasn’t signaled interest in a 2024 campaign, remaining committed to fighting for meaningful change in his State Senate seat. 

Gutierrez did raise eyebrows recently when he introduced a bill that would limit members of the United States Senate from Texas to serving two consecutive terms, mirroring a constitutional amendment long supported by, wait for it…Ted Cruz.

Senior Advisor | + posts

Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.

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