The Rise of Rafael Cruz

by Robert Costa
Senator Ted Cruz’s father is a conservative force.

The political partnership between Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and his father, Rafael, is a rising force in conservative politics. To most observers, it seems like part of a familial game plan that has been in the works for years.

But according to Senator Cruz, it actually began quite recently with a phone call. “My dad poured himself into my Senate race last year,” he recalls. “In the early months, we didn’t have much of a campaign. One day, I couldn’t make an event, so he drove out to West Texas alone — no staffers, nothing — and he spoke on my behalf. A few hours later, I called and asked how it went. He said, ‘Even surrogates for the other candidates were asking for Cruz yard signs.’”

Ever since, Cruz has kept his father, a 74-year-old pastor, involved with his political shop, using him not merely as a confidant and stand-in, but as a special envoy. He is Cruz’s preferred introductory speaker, his best messenger with evangelicals, and his favorite on-air sidekick — a presence who softens his edge. This past Sunday, the pair sat for a joint CNN interview, one full of aw-shucks asides.

This summer, father and son have also been traveling together throughout the country, speaking to conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere. Their roadshow has enthralled many on the right and startled Cruz’s potential 2016 rivals. No one else in the emerging GOP field has an ally like the charismatic elder Cruz.

There was Rafael Cruz in Des Moines, Iowa, last month, speaking to ministers at the Marriott hotel and collecting business cards in the lobby; a month later, he was in Ames, Iowa, pacing the stage at a conservative summit and drawing cheers for his broadsides against President Obama. His fiery speech at a FreedomWorks event in July drew heavy praise from talk radio.

Rush Limbaugh especially loved how Rafael Cruz compared the president’s “hope and change” message to Fidel Castro’s appeal decades ago. “This guy is knocking it out of the park!” Limbaugh exclaimed.

Conservative leaders agree. Bob Vander Plaats, a top Iowa conservative who hosted the Cruz duo last month, calls Rafael Cruz’s speeches “inspiring” and says the image of a father and son laboring together resonates with values voters. Former senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who now runs the Heritage Foundation, is another admirer. He has worked alongside Rafael Cruz this month to rally against Obamacare.

Rafael actually called me and volunteered to contribute to Heritage’s ‘defund Obamacare’ tour, and it has been amazing to be with him,” DeMint says. “He opens with a prayer, which gets as much applause as anything else, and then he gives a call to action, talking about how his freedom was taken away in Cuba and how important it is that we never lose our freedom here.”

As part of that tour, Rafael Cruz attended his son’s town-hall meetings in Texas last week, where he called out the Republican establishment for not backing a fall standoff over Obamacare’s funding. “There is a great disconnect between promises and action,” he told a Dallas crowd, not far from his home in Carrollton. “If there’s one thing I’m proud of about my son, it’s that he’s doing exactly what he told each and every one of you that he’d do.”

Attendees there went wild for him, loving his punchy, often politically incorrect rhetoric. They leapt to their feet as he closed his remarks and a soaring rock track began to play. A minute later, Senator Cruz emerged from backstage and strolled toward the dais with his arms open. Father and son embraced as fists pumped. Another episode of Cruz-apalooza had begun.

Beyond his oratory, though, it’s Rafael Cruz’s sway in his son’s inner circle that makes him a power broker. His son trusts his father’s political instincts, and instead of hiring a big-name Republican strategist to shepherd his ascent, he uses his father for the kind of guidance you’d expect from a consultant.

Rafael Cruz has already taken five trips to Washington, D.C., this year, usually spending a week each time. He stays at his son’s apartment, and while his son is on Capitol Hill, he hosts meetings and catches up with Cruz-friendly activists and donors. In the evenings, he and his son talk politics deep into the night.

When the Senate is out of session and they hit the road, Rafael Cruz arrives at events in advance of his son’s team, informally scouting the room and huddling with organizers. He relishes the game — warming up local Republicans, shaking hands, and regaling them with stories about his son. Later on, he’ll call the busy freshman senator and give him a preview of the scene.

Sources close to Cruz say those who run Cruz’s operation, both in his Senate office and on the political side, have learned to work with Rafael, and that for many of them, their boss’s father has become a mentor. They also appreciate his tact: He’s clearly the insider of insiders within Cruz’s camp, but he doesn’t overdo it, leaving the mechanics of Cruz, Inc., to aides such as his campaign adviser Jason Johnson, or his chief of staff, Chip Roy.

Rafael Cruz does not take his arrival in the heart of the conservative movement’s upper echelon for granted. He may project confidence and verve when he’s in front of a tea-party audience, but, he tells me, he wept when his son took his oath, and every day he says a prayer of thanks that he and his son can work together at the national level.

Whereas his son’s biography is a straightforward narrative of a child prodigy turned senator — Princeton, Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerk, and Texas solicitor general — Rafael Cruz’s life has been far more complicated.

Born in Matanzas, Cuba, he grew up in the Cuban middle class in the 1950s, as the son of an RCA salesman and an elementary-school teacher. As a teenager, he grew to detest the regime of Fulgencio Batista. He and some of his schoolmates frequently clashed with Batista’s officials. Eventually, he linked up with Castro’s guerrilla groups and supported their attempts to overthrow Batista.

It’s a decision he still regrets. His move toward Castro, he explains, was mostly due to his anger with Batista’s government, which at one point imprisoned him and tortured him for his work with the revolutionaries. He says he never shared Castro’s Communism, but, at the time, it was the best way to fight Batista’s oppression. By age 18, in 1957, he knew he needed to get out, and a friend essentially bribed an official to secure him an exit permit.

Soon after, with his parents still in Cuba — they wouldn’t come to the U.S. until 1966 — Rafael Cruz arrived in Austin, Texas, where he began to study mathematics and chemical engineering at the University of Texas. He had little more than $100 to his name, and he could barely speak English. But, by working seven days a week, he was able to graduate in 1961.

In the early 1960s, Rafael Cruz was also beginning to start a family. He married and had two daughters, and he started to work in the energy industry. But the marriage ended after only a few years, and Cruz found himself at a difficult crossroads in his late twenties. (One of his daughters is now a physician in Texas; the other is deceased.)

Cruz decided to move to New Orleans to take a new job, which is where he met his second wife, Eleanor Darragh, a computer programmer from Delaware, who was also working for an oil company. They married, moved to Calgary, Alberta, and in late 1970 had their first and only child, Rafael Edward Cruz.

They weren’t in Canada long, choosing to move to Houston, where they continued to work for oil companies. He became a Canadian citizen while working there, he says, but it never felt like home. Back in Texas, he became a permanent legal resident, and it wasn’t until 2005 that he formally became a U.S. citizen. “Oh, I know I should have done it sooner,” he says. “I love this country so much, but you cannot change the past.”

It was also back in Texas, in 1975, when his life changed. After attending a Bible-study meeting with a colleague, he became a born-again Christian, leaving his days as a non-practicing Roman Catholic behind.

The people at the Bible study had a peace that I could not understand, this peace in the midst of trouble,” Cruz says. “I knew I needed to find that peace by finding Jesus Christ.” His son and wife followed him, becoming born-again Christians as well. Around the dinner table, the talk was almost always about the Bible or the latest happenings in the Reagan administration.

His faith, he says, also saved him from becoming bitter and depressed when the oil industry sagged in the mid 1980s and his professional life hit a low point. “There was a big crash and many of my clients went bankrupt,” he says. “It got so bad that I had to close my business. I became a salesman here and there, and I started to build a ministry, as a sort of traveling preacher.”

As Rafael developed his own extemporaneous speaking style, he shared his methods with his son, who was a star student by middle school. But instead of pushing him toward preaching, Rafael wanted Ted to have a minister’s confidence and cadence as a debater. He repeatedly quizzed Ted on the Constitution until he memorized it, and critiqued his enunciation.

Cruz’s mother, Rafael chuckles, played more of a good-cop role. Though they are now divorced, he says his son has a similarly close relationship with her, just without the political element. “I live outside Dallas, but she lives in the same high-rise condo complex as him in Houston,” he says. “She loves taking the elevator to see her granddaughters, and he appreciates that.”

As for our relationship, I coached him, yes, but it was a close relationship in all respects,” Cruz says. “We used to go sailing together on vacations, and we’d talk and talk. After he was at Princeton, he was on the debate team, and I’d go every time I could when he was winning all of these debates. I did the same thing when he argued before the Supreme Court.”

The dynamic of their relationship hasn’t changed much; it has adapted. Back in January, soon after his son was sworn in, Rafael followed Ted as he made the cable-news rounds in Washington, D.C. At the time, few of the producers working for CNBC or Fox News even knew who he was, other than an older gentleman with wisps of snow-white hair, standing in the back near the cameras.

One chilly January night, moments before an interview at a cramped studio on North Capitol Street, a technician asked Rafael Cruz to step away from the cables. Most guests of guests, he reminded him, stay in the green room. Senator Cruz, standing under the bright lights nearby, heard the exchange and said, “That’s my father.” The technician nodded, and Rafael Cruz, as ever, stood firm in the shadows, watching.

Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.