Ted Cruz has been a U.S. senator for little more than a month, but the Texas Republican has already thrown himself into the scrum on guns, immigration, and Cabinet confirmations. He’s endeared himself to the Right, angered the Left, and leapt past senators many years his senior to claim a spot in the national conversation.
Cruz, 42, is not the first senator to seek the spotlight from day one. Two other tea-party freshmen—Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky—had similar arrivals in 2010. But Cruz’s early exploits are unusually loud and aggressive. They show where conservatives believe the path to power now lies: Ambitious members no longer rise by sitting silently in their early years, laboring in committee rooms, and strolling Capitol corridors. They rise by playing the outside game. (Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina took the concept to its logical extreme, resigning his Senate seat recently to take the presidency of the conservative Heritage Foundation.)
And Cruz has got game. In a typical week, the freshman fought the appointments of John Kerry as secretary of State—he was one of just three to dissent—and Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary. (He unfurled a giant gotcha poster and played a video clip of Hagel on Al Jazeera.) These performances drew rave reviews from the Right and comparisons to Joseph McCarthy from the Left.
Cruz tried (unsuccessfully) to bring a firearm to a committee hearing. He sent a sharp epistle to Rahm Emanuel, telling the Chicago mayor to keep his gun-reform efforts “north of the Red River.” He tore through the Sunday show circuit, made waves as a prominent Latino Republican against an undocumented immigrant’s path to citizenship, and even found time to visit Israel and Afghanistan with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others. All in his first month. “He’s going to be a force,” says Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
So far, Cruz has been on the losing end of every floor vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate—0 for 12, as of midweek, more lopsided than any other senator—but that is beside the point. “If I go to Washington and just have a good voting record,” Cruz proclaimed during his campaign, “I will consider myself a failure.” That kind of change-oriented rhetoric inspired the conservative Club for Growth to spend $5.6 million on a campaign to vault him past the establishment’s choice in an ugly Senate GOP primary. Club members bundled another $1 million in direct giving to Cruz.
“He was definitely worth the investment,” cooes club President Chris Chocola. “Part of what we hope people like Ted Cruz do is change the culture of the Senate from this club where there’s this protocol that has gotten us $16 trillion in debt … because no one wants to offend someone else.”
Cruz’s résumé hardly screams agitating outsider: He was a champion collegiate debater at Princeton, a graduate of Harvard Law School, a lawyer in the second Bush administration, then the Texas solicitor general arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. But he has already won many antiestablishment laurels, including a New York Times editorial that chided him for ideological “rigidity.” Cruz joked at the National Review Institute summit last month that congressional Republicans should cancel their subscription to the paper. “The media will always be a lost cause,” he told attendees. “So you go over their heads. You talk straight to the people.” Cruz declined an interview for this story.
As he is one of only two Latino Republicans in the Senate, Cruz’s immigration maneuvers will be closely watched. So far, he sides with anti-amnesty hard-liners, putting him at odds with Rubio, one of the chief architects of a bipartisan Senate plan that would include a path to citizenship. Cruz has said he has “deep concerns” with such a package. “He wants to be a major player in that area,” says Boozman, who is aligned with Cruz.
Cruz’s early aggressive posture has stepped on a few senatorial toes. In his effort to bring a gun to a gun-control hearing, Cruz cowrote a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asking for help making this happen. Except, Leahy says, the press got the note before he did. “I read in the paper that he had sent me a letter,” Leahy tells National Journal. “We called his office and asked if I could see it, too.”
Cruz hasn’t totally abandoned the inside game. He built a rapport with Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, that some say helped Cruz land plum assignments on Armed Services (which allowed him to grill Hagel) and Judiciary (which will give him a plat-form on both immigration and guns). The relationship also helps Cornyn, who is guarding his right flank against a 2014 tea-party challenge. Cornyn joined Cruz in opposing Kerry’s nomination.
Not everyone is sold that a fast start in the Senate is an omen of long-term success. Sen. Tom Harkin declined to discuss Cruz in particular but offered perspective on those who have stormed the beaches in years past. “Looking back over 40 years,” the retiring Iowa Democrat says, “it seems to me that those who come in and make big splash at the beginning seem to burn out fast.”
Rebeca Kaplan contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the February 9, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Ted Talks.