Cruz’s rapid assent has been compared to that of Barack Obama, who as a freshman senator went out of his way to endear himself to his party’s base and position himself to run for higher office in the future. “It’s obvious that he came here with a very different approach, to elevate himself and propel himself to national aspirations,” a GOP strategist tells National Review Online. But Cruz has also become a powerful force within Congress, wielding considerable influence with conservatives in the House. His efforts have almost singlehandedly foiled House speaker John Boehner’s plans on multiple occasions.
In what some view as an effort to curry favor with the base, Rubio joined Cruz in the campaign to defund Obamacare, but he has played a conspicuously subdued role, to the point where it is easy to forget that he is involved at all. “No one can say that Marco Rubio is the face of the shutdown,” says a senior GOP aide. Of course, that might not be wholly a bad thing, given the extent to which Cruz has alienated members of his own party over the past few months.
“Cruz has raised his profile on the back of his colleagues, including some of his most conservative colleagues,” the GOP strategist says. “These institutions work on personal relationships, so if you spend all your time pissing off your colleagues, you’re not going to get much done.”
Rubio, meanwhile, has continued to work hard behind the scenes. Confrontational tactics simply aren’t his style, and even if they were, it would be difficult to surpass Cruz in that regard. He has also been quietly raising money — $2 million between July and September, more than double Cruz’s haul over that same period. His focus remains on the Senate, and on advancing conservative policy ideas.
“In 2010, people were already telling Marco he would be vice president in two years,” says Pat Shortridge, a GOP strategist who worked on Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign. “He’s always said that you don’t ask for the job of United States senator to use it as a stepping stone to something else. Just work hard, do the right thing, and wherever it takes you, be happy with it.”
GOP strategists warn that it is far too early to predict how this year’s events will play in the 2016 Republican primary, assuming that both Rubio and Cruz decide to run. “I think that through the lens and optics of 2016, there are a lot of other things that will come up between now and then that will put different people in the spotlight,” says GOP consultant Javier Ortiz. “It’s a function of the news cycle, and which people choose to make themselves visible on a particular issue.”
Republicans don’t necessarily agree that Cruz has “eclipsed” Rubio over the past several months. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say that they’ve traded places,” says a senior GOP aide. “Rubio has clearly lost some of his luster among conservatives because of immigration, but I think conservatives who want to win national elections will probably find more to like in Rubio than Cruz at this point.”
But for the moment, anyway, Cruz’s aggressive style seems to be more in line with what most conservatives want. “The base is not looking for a conciliator,” says Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a friend of Rubio’s. “They’re not looking for someone who is good at compromising, who can make peace with the other side. They’re looking for someone who will stand up to a very aggressive, disrespectful liberal opposition that’s standing out there with bare knuckles winding up at us every chance they get.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.