08.03.12

Ted Cruz Has Just About Everything in Common With Obama but Ideology

The Texas Tea Party Republican is the president’s ideological opposite, but both men are thoughtful, savvy politicians who engage and motivate voters, writes Mark McKinnon.

A young, Harvard-educated lawyer, an “intellectual” with a compelling life story, the son of an American mother and an immigrant father, a practiced orator thrust into the national political spotlight, and buoyed by a cult of personality, is Ted Cruz going to be the Republican Barack Obama?

The speculation began just hours after Tea Party-favorite Ted Cruz beat the establishment conservative Lt. Governor David Dewhurst in a bitter runoff battle in Texas for the U.S. Senate seat held by the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison. Will Cruz be invited to speak at the Republican National Convention? Will this Tea Party firebrand lead a revolution in the Senate? And even, does he meet the citizenship requirements to run for president in 2016?

Whoa. Hold your horses. Cruz is not yet a senator; he faces a Democratic opponent in November.

Though there are striking similarities between the former state Solicitor General Cruz and President Obama—not just in their bios but also their ability to generate excitement at the grassroots level and through social media—their differences are extreme, to say the least.

The low-tax, small-government tenets of the Tea Party espoused by the outspoken Cruz are the absolute antithesis of the president’s more liberal, progressive agenda. And, Chicago, Ill., and Austin, Texas, are more than just 1,100 miles apart. Texas is a whole ‘nother country.

Texas is big, big in national politics. In the 16 presidential elections since World War II, seven Texans have been on the winning ticket; of those, five were Republican. And this year, the state is second only to California in electoral votes.

Texas is ornery. Voters in the 1976 Republican presidential primary bucked convention, rejecting the establishment candidate, incumbent President Gerald Ford, instead awarding all 100 delegates to challenger Ronald Reagan—arguably, the spark for the Reagan Revolution to come in 1980.

Engagement is the key. And right now, voters on the right are more engaged in Texas than those in the middle or to the left.

And Texas is red. Though once a Democrat stronghold, albeit a conservative Democrat stronghold, no Democrat has been elected to statewide office in the Lone Star state since 1994. Before, during, and after the red-tide elections of 2010, a small army of Democratic officeholders, from county commissioners to state representatives, switched to the Republican Party. And, interestingly, the most visible of those party defections were Hispanic lawmakers.

The demographics are changing in Texas, as the Hispanic population is growing faster than any other segment. While Hispanics in Texas are still more likely to vote for a Democrat than a Republican, and though Texas turning blue has some Democrats salivating at the thought of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro as a future governor, a sudden shift from red to blue is not likely.

Engagement is the key. And right now, voters on the right are more engaged in Texas than those in the middle or to the left.

Cruz crushed Dewhurst, who was endorsed by Governor Rick Perry and most of the state’s Republican leadership, by about 13 percentage points in the runoff, after trailing him by 10 in the earlier, crowded primary field of six serious candidates. And though some Texas voters were a bit riled by folks like Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint and Sen. Rand Paul, and groups like Club for Growth and FreedomWorks endorsing Cruz and “messin’ with Texas,” fervent Cruz fans saw that outside support as an affirmation of the Tea Party’s national importance and of their right choice.

The excitement around Cruz is good for Texas, giving the state a Hispanic face in the Senate for the first time. It’s good for the Tea Party, changing the media meme from “bitter clingers” with “low-sloping foreheads” to suddenly “intellectual.” And it may be good for the GOP up ticket, giving Texas voters something to vote for, not just against.

Of course, Cruz still has to win in November. And he’ll have to pivot a bit to the middle while not stepping on the toes of those who brung ‘em to the dance.

But a Cruz victory may not be good for the nation. To legislate effectively and resolve the crises we face as a nation, Senator Cruz will have to offer compromise and action, not just heat and rhetoric. That is a challenge bigger than Texas. One that President Obama himself has yet to master.