Ted Cruz needed his security blanket. It was 2:30 a.m. and, bleary-eyed from speaking for the better part of 12 hours on the Senate floor in an indictment of Obamacare — replete with references to Green Eggs and Ham, Star Wars, White Castle, and Duck Dynasty — the junior senator from Texas handed it off to the junior senator from Utah, Mike Lee.
Standing in front of a mostly empty chamber, his face glistening under the lights, Lee made no references to Dr. Seuss or miniature, square-shaped burgers: It was a 45-minute soliloquy on constitutional law.
“Quite simply, it was extraordinary,” Cruz says today. He was talking not just about the ability of his best friend in the Senate to speak extemporaneously about complex jurisprudence, but also about Lee’s unwavering support. Like a proud parent at the world’s most interminable soccer game, the Utahan stayed on the floor for the entire 21 hours, even speaking for almost four hours himself when his colleague most needed the help.
It’s easy to see the relationship between Cruz and Lee as a libertarian Batman and Robin. The two have been joined at the hip in the quest to defund Obamacare. But Lee is more than just a sidekick to the so-called wacko bird from the Lone Star State. Yes, Cruz loves the spotlight and knows how to make the most of it, while Lee can come across as a law professor willing to scare you, work you, and bore you to death. Part mentor, part guiding force, part emotional supporter, Lee is more like Cruz’s Alfred Pennyworth. He helped set the stage for Cruz to take on his starring role.
Cruz met Lee in 2010 at a meeting of the Federalist Society in Washington and quickly realized the two were “kindred spirits.” Lee had just been elected to his first Senate term. He encouraged Cruz to run in Texas and went on to become one of Cruz’s earliest endorsers. “I was quite literally at 2 percent in the polls,” Cruz said in an interview in his office. “Using standard political metrics, Mike was crazy to support me at that point.”
Lee grew up well connected politically — an insider, despite his tea-party mantle today. Three of his second cousins have been elected to the Senate; his father, Rex Lee, was solicitor general for President Reagan, and the younger Lee spent much of his childhood in Northern Virginia with neighbors such as the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. In Lee’s Mormon faith, home teachers help and support families; the teacher assigned to Lee’s family turned out to be Sen. Harry Reid. (One time, Reid locked Lee in a garage as a practical joke, making for the perfect origin story if you’re looking for one.) But Lee has made it quite clear he is willing to do things that by standard political metrics are inadvisable.
Lee was the original tea-party hero, reaching the Senate by outflanking Republican Sen. Bob Bennett on the right. In one of his weekly addresses, President Obama called Lee out (although not by name) for “gumming up the works for the whole country.” But it wasn’t until Cruz — a hypberbolic and captivating showman — came to Washington in 2012 that someone else was around who could take that message and use it to become a national figure.
Before Cruz took over the conversation, Lee laid the groundwork. Because, while much of the vitriol from the left (and the center) is directed at Cruz, Lee is the true architect of the defund-Obamacare operation. It was Lee who in July drafted a letter to Reid that began the effort to link funding of the health care law to the passage of a short-term budget bill. At the time, Lee took to the Senate floor to push the approach, made the rounds on television to pitch it to the American people, and initially got 17 GOP senators to sign the letter. When leadership didn’t approve of the plan, a number of senators removed their signatures. “It became clear that using the traditional rules of Washington would not persuade our colleagues,” Cruz said. “The only hope was to take it directly to the American people.”
This was a job for a flashy, smooth-talking, boot-wearing performer, not a quiet scholar. “Mike understands when it’s time to speak up and when it’s time to be in a support role,” said Spencer Stokes, his former chief of staff. Before 2012, Lee would likely be talking to anyone and everyone he could (“I don’t think we’ve turned down a media request,” Stokes was quoted in The Washington Post as saying shortly after Lee was elected). Recently, Lee has been letting Cruz do the talking, turning down an interview request from National Journal.
For Cruz, it’s a high-risk, high-reward position. It’s why people can imagine him either running for president in 2016 or flaming out long before a primary. Lee by all accounts doesn’t have any designs on higher office; he’s happy in Wayne Manor. Batman may get the glory, but Alfred’s chances of survival over the long haul are exponentially better. Even Cruz admits he has been something of an unintentional shield for his friend. “It does seem that some of the Democrats have chosen to direct a significant part of their animosity at me.”
Which, of course, is not to say that Lee doesn’t face any consequences. A statewide poll this week found that 57 percent of Utahans want him to be more conciliatory on budget issues, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s aiding Cruz in the fight that has grown increasingly unpopular. But you can almost imagine Lee whispering into Cruz’s ear on the Senate floor. “They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make — the right choice.”