One doesn’t visit Hemphill, Texas (pop. 1,188), expecting a huge crowd. But when Ted Cruz arrived in the tiny city in Deep East Texas for an early-morning campaign stop during his 2012 bid for the Republican nomination for Senate, some 30 community leaders had assembled in the front yard of the courthouse. According to Tyler Norris, who was Cruz’s driver at the time, they were sitting in lawn chairs, eagerly waiting to hear the would-be senator’s plans for fixing Washington. Responsible for the (comparatively) robust turnout was Wayne Christian, the district’s state representative at the time. Christian was one of the few Texas Republican elected officials to endorse Cruz in his Senate bid, and he gave him a rousing introduction. Cruz proceeded to deliver a stirring speech, and some of the attendees immediately made campaign contributions. Cruz’s people handed out bumper stickers, which many of the Hemphillians promptly affixed to their cars.
Christian proceeded to take Cruz to the Suzi Q Cattle Company, where he introduced the candidate to cattle raisers and others involved in the agriculture industry. It was in the early days of the campaign, and that level of help — in fact, any amount of help — from an elected Republican was far from the norm. Christian went out on a limb for Cruz, and people noticed. But Cruz wasn’t the only beneficiary.
When Christian showed Cruz around the Suzi Q Company and the Hemphill courthouse grounds, he wasn’t planning to run for statewide office. But today he’s running for the Republican nomination for railroad commissioner, and his status as a Ted Cruz early adopter hasn’t hurt a bit.
“It worked well,” he tells me. “You’re always in a lot better shape when you’re with the winner.” He adds that now moderate candidates court his endorsement, and that there’s a new litmus test for Republican candidates: “Well, how much like Ted Cruz are you?”
Cruz’s win seems to have substantially changed how Texas Republican politics works — some candidates even use the term “Cruz Republican” to tout their conservatism — and his campaign acolytes are running for office, running offices, and doling out high-demand endorsements. But Cruz’s win isn’t the only factor here; his fiery rhetoric and unorthodox tactics on the Hill have engendered vastly different responses from Texas grassroots activists and Republicans like John McCain and Susan Collins.
Katrina Pierson is a good example. The Dallas-based tea-party activist, who volunteered for Cruz’s Senate campaign, announced last week that she’s challenging Representative Pete Sessions in his primary, and tells me that Cruz inspired her move.
“You see someone like Ted Cruz gets elected, and we’re all skeptical, right?” she says. “We’re all skeptical about what happens when people to go Washington, D.C. And when we see him standing up for what’s right against the establishment, against the party, and it can be done — it’s like, well, okay then!”
“He’s still holding his campaign promises,” she continues, “and the simple fact that he did it lets the rest of us know that not only can we do it, but we need to give him some backup, bottom line.”
Pierson says Cruz’s campaign functioned as a sort of boot camp for grassroots activists, who built a support network that’s only grown since the campaign ended. And Cruz’s involvement in the effort to defund the Affordable Care Act has spurred more Texans to volunteer, according to Pierson.
“We’ve got a lot more people reaching out, saying how do I get involved, what do I do, how do we stop this,” she says. And she thinks that response has helped her primary campaign.
Konni Burton, who is running in the Republican primary for Wendy Davis’s state-senate seat, tells me she’s also benefited from her volunteer work on Cruz’s campaign.
“Attending all meetings, reaching out to all stripes of political people, setting up meetings, talking to everybody — you just don’t stop,” she tells me. “You just keep going. And I remember thinking about that with Senator Cruz, ‘How does he have the energy and stamina?’ I remember thinking that. And now that I’m in it, you just do it. It’s just what you’ve got to do.”
Current candidates stand to benefit by associating themselves with the Cruz brand.
“It’s really unique,” says Norris, who now works as a consultant in Austin. “I’ve never seen it before, where campaigns are seeing who can be the Cruziest, if you will.” Support from the team that pushed for Cruz can help candidates win “instant conservative bona fides,” he adds.
For instance, two of the Republican candidates in the attorney-general race have sparred over who has the most support from Cruz’s old team. When state representative Dan Branch announced that ten of Cruz’s legal advisers supported his candidacy, state senator Ken Paxton quickly one-upped him with a list of 100 tea-party endorsements in a press release that crowed, “Key Leaders in Ted Cruz Volunteer Army Activate for Paxton.”
For others, having endorsed Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst over Cruz in the Senate primary has become a liability. State senator Dan Patrick, who’s now challenging Dewhurst for his seat, endorsed Dewhurst back when he was running for Senate. Patrick recently told the Texas Tribune that he will support Cruz if he runs for president, even if Governor Rick Perry runs too — people in Texas are rushing to endorse Cruz for president! — and his opponents criticized him for flip-flopping: Why didn’t he support Cruz when it wasn’t politically popular?
Patrick fired back with a press release jabbing at his critics, agriculture commissioner Todd Staples and land commissioner Jerry Patterson.
“Unlike Mr. Staples and Mr. Patterson, I am not afraid to say I would support Ted Cruz if he were to be a candidate for President. Neither of them seem convinced that he is the right candidate or have yet mustered that courage to say so. . . . Who are Mr. Staples and Mr. Patterson supporting for President in 2016 — Chris Christie?”
So that’s post-Cruz Texas Republican politics: where candidates are cowards if they don’t endorse the freshman senator for president in 2016, and where Chris Christie is a punch line.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.