Cruz’s Struggle: This Man Loves to Argue

by Stuart Rothenberg April 22, 2015 · 9:44 AM EDT

The first time I met Ted Cruz, he argued with me. The second time I met Ted Cruz, he argued with me. It wasn’t personal, of course. Ted Cruz simply loves to argue.

Those two incidents told me a lot about Cruz. The first time was at an event in Florida in February 2012, months before he won the Texas GOP Senate nomination. I had never met him, but he wandered up to me and started complaining about my assessment of the Republican primary in the Lone Star State.

I told him to come to my office for an interview and to discuss the race, and he did a few weeks later.

I had no idea if the tea party favorite would win the GOP nomination, but I knew I wanted to learn about his views, his upbringing, his education and professional background. He wouldn’t have any of that. He was there to prosecute his case, insisting he would defeat the early favorite in the race, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. And he did.

There is no self-doubt in the junior senator from Texas, who has an impressive résumé and has already entered the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Cruz has an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard. He clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, served in the President George W. Bush Justice Department and as solicitor general of Texas, all before the 2012 victory when he knocked off the state’s sitting lieutenant governor in the Republican primary.

The Texan is one of the more combative and confrontational conservatives in the race for his party’s nomination. That has made him a favorite on the right and a punching bag to liberals and many in the national media.

Unlike some other hopefuls in the contest, Cruz regards caution and compromise as a violation of principle. He has encouraged House Republicans to take on their more pragmatic legislative leaders, earning him a reputation as one of the leaders of the GOP’s tea party wing.

Cruz’s positions on hot-button issues — from immigration and Common Core to taxes, spending, abortion and national defense — resonate well with the Republican base, but it is his take-no-prisoners style and willingness to combat Democrats and the entire liberal establishment that make him such a favorite among those conservatives who are watching government get bigger.

The freshman senator is one of a handful of Republican presidential hopefuls — along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Ben Carson — competing for evangelical and tea party conservatives in the Iowa caucuses. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is also a significant problem for Cruz, since Paul has considerable appeal among anti-establishment conservatives.

The importance of the many evangelical conservatives in Iowa, the first test in the nominating process, should not be underestimated.

The 2012 Iowa entrance poll conducted by Edison Research for multiple media clients showed 57 percent of caucus attendees called themselves “born again” or evangelical Christians, and just shy of two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents said they supported the tea party.

New Hampshire GOP primary voters (a group that includes a large number of independents) aren’t nearly as religious or conservative as Iowans who will go to the caucuses, but South Carolina Republican primary voters are. In 2012, 65 percent of those who voted in the Palmetto State Republican primary self-identified as born again or evangelical Christians and 64 percent said they supported the tea party.

Obviously, if a single Republican hopeful can emerge as the consensus candidate of the evangelical and tea party faction, that candidate would be a factor well into the nominating process.

The recent national debate over religious freedom and gay rights is likely to elevate cultural issues for evangelical social conservatives, giving Cruz and his competitors another talking point to woo caucus-goers and boost evangelical participation.

But while Cruz is likely to engender passion among his supporters, he is regarded by many others in his party as unappealing and, even worse, unacceptable. To his critics, he is a self-promoting snake oil salesman, an unflattering comparison that suggests he is both untrustworthy and unscrupulous.

They find his language too inflammatory and confrontational, and many regard him as a disastrous general election nominee who would not only lose the presidential election but damage the party’s prospects down-ballot.

The kind of Republicans who supported Mitt Romney and John McCain in the past will never embrace Cruz, of course. But it isn’t clear that the Texas senator can attract much more than the hardcore tea party and movement conservative crowd, which, while an important segment of the GOP, isn’t large enough to select the party’s presidential nominee.

So while Cruz is an interesting candidate and certainly could play a role in the unfolding GOP race, he probably needs to broaden his message and change his style to win his party’s nomination. And given what I know of the Texas senator, that’s not happening.