Ted Cruz blazed onto the national scene as the skunk at the GOP’s picnic in 2013, launching a historic filibuster, pushing for a government shutdown, and raising millions of dollars for outside conservative groups that attacked his fellow Republican senators.
But with the 2016 presidential season on the horizon, the Texas firebrand has subtly changed his tune over the last six months. Instead of agitating against his fellow Republicans, as he did over Obamacare funding in the tumultuous leadup to the 2013 government shutdown, he is now reserving his fire exclusively for Democrats.
“Ted Cruz, Team Player” is a twist few saw coming from the freshman who has made too many enemies to count in Washington. But even Cruz’s most vocal GOP detractors can’t argue with the $250,000 pledge he made to the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in September, making Cruz one of the largest individual donors to Republican senators and candidates this cycle.
On top of the NRSC pledge, Cruz has given thousands to five incumbent GOP senators, including $7,500 to Sen. John Cornyn, an establishment senator frequently derided by the Tea Party. And he’s given significantly more cash to GOP hopefuls like Ben Sasse in Nebraska, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Steve Daines in Montana, Ed Gillespie in Virginia, and Cory Gardner in Colorado, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Importantly, none of the candidates that Cruz has supported in the last six months have been running against incumbent Republicans.
Cruz has also been on the road nearly constantly in 2014, focusing on the early presidential primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, while making detours when he’s asked to, like a surprising visit to stump for embattled Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas. Roberts had been high on conservatives’ hit lists in the primary season, but now Cruz has hopped on Roberts’ campaign bus tour (only for a mile, but still) to help rally conservative Kansans behind the comparatively moderate 78-year-old.
“The primary is over, and I want to speak to folks who are frustrated with Washington,” Cruz told the crowd. “I promise you there is nobody more frustrated with Washington, D.C. than I am. But let me urge you, if you’re frustrated with Washington, the answer is not to stay home and keep Harry Reid as majority leader.”
Roberts, in turn, treated Cruz like the celebrity he has become among conservative activists, introducing him as “the prairie fire from Texas” and, one time, as just “The Man.”
The scene was all a long way from the days—less than a year ago—when Cruz was raising money for the Madison Project, which helped fund Milton Wolf, Roberts’ primary challenger. Despite running a lackluster campaign, Wolf, a physician who posted patients’ X-rays on Facebook and joked about them with commenters, came within seven points of beating Roberts.
And it was light years away from the summer and fall of 2013, when Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee went on a fundraising blitz for the Senate Conservatives Fund, the group founded by Jim DeMint. The SCF used that Cruz-Lee money to run ads against seven GOP senators they were serving with, including Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, and Lindsey Graham. The ads attacked those veteran Republicans for not opposing Obamacare enough, even though they all voted against the bill and said they would vote to defund it. And by the time it was all over, his fellow Republicans in Washington were furious.
But now the Texan says he wants nothing more than to help the GOP win big this November. “I am on the road almost every day traveling the country trying to turn out conservatives,” Cruz told Breitbart.com last week on the way to a South Carolina tailgate. “If conservatives show up in November 2014, we’ll win the Senate—and we could win as many as 10 to 12 seats if conservatives show up and vote. That is my focus for the next 25 days.”
Republicans who have been dealing with Cruz for the entirety of his nearly two years in the Senate, however, are skeptical of the Texan’s newfound loyalty to the party. Some see it as an effort to win over at least a few friends before the 2016 presidential elections, when many assume Cruz will run. Others see it as an attempt to clean up the mess he made with the defund-Obamacare tactic that resulted in a government shutdown and allowed Democrats to cast Republicans as irresponsible and extreme.
“Ted Cruz is throwing water on a brush fire he helped start, and I don’t think that will be lost on Senate Republicans for quite a while,” said a GOP campaign operative, who was not interested in having Cruz join his boss on campaign trail. “His ‘defund Obamacare’ stunt that didn’t even stop Obamacare, divisive rhetoric on other issues including immigration, and fundraising for groups like Senate Conservatives Fund all served as drags on the ability of Republicans’ otherwise strong chances in the midterms by wasting resources that could have been used on general elections across the country.”