During last October’s government shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz was often referred to sarcastically as “Speaker Cruz,” with the implication that he was the hidden force directing the efforts of recalcitrant House Republicans while the real Speaker of the House, John Boehner was left helpless and emasculated.
Now four months later, a pair of moves seems to indicate Cruz is auditioning for a different role in the House of Representatives, Minority Leader.
Over the past week, Cruz has twice directly taken on his party’s House leadership. On Monday, the first-term Texas Senator announced he had hired Paul Teller to be his deputy chief of staff. This wasn’t just a personnel move but a slap in the face of many House Republicans. Teller was dramatically fired in December as executive director of the Republican Study Committee, (RSC) a grouping of the most conservative members of the House GOP caucus, for leaking details of the Ryan-Murray budget negotiations to outside conservative groups in an apparent attempt to sabotage a bipartisan budget deal. When Teller’s sacking was announced, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the chairman of the RSC said the staffer no longer had the trust of lawmakers.
At the time, a senior GOP staffer told the National Journal, "No staffer is above a member. [Teller] was divulging private, member-level conversations and actively working against RSC strategies supported by House conservatives." Nevertheless, Teller was praised by hardcore conservatives including Rep. Tim Huelkamp (R-KS) and operatives for groups such as the Club for Growth.
The Texas senator also took a step last week that seemed like a tacit endorsement of a primary challenge against Rep Pete Sessions (R-TX), the chair of the House Rules Committee and a key member of House leadership. Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, endorsed Katrina Pierson, a tea party candidate running against Sessions. On Saturday, Sen. Cruz praised Pierson by name at a Tea Party rally, describing her as “an utterly fearless principled conservative.” A Cruz spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News that the Senator “has not endorsed in this race and remains unlikely to get involved in any incumbent primaries,” it’s not hard to read between the lines.
These two actions reinforce Cruz’s role in the GOP as he positions himself for a potential presidential bid in 2016. Rather than trying to mend his rifts with the GOP establishment, Cruz is widening them. By hiring Teller and praising Pierson (and allowing his father to endorse her), the Texas senator is pouring more fuel on the fire. Other Tea Party favorites like Rand Paul have taken conciliatory steps in recent months; Lindsey Graham described the Kentucky senator to the Daily Beast as “incredibly responsible.” But Cruz is taking the opposite approach and betting that continued intraparty strife will boost both his ambitions and ideological agenda.