Facing a calculation known to every presidential aspirant who is a sitting member of Congress — whether time spent running for president is worth the blowback for missing official duties — Texas' junior senator appears to be betting yes.
Of the five senators hitting the presidential trail, he has the worst voting attendance record, missing one out of four votes since the beginning of this term, and even more in recent months.
His stats do not stack up well against a rival like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has near-perfect attendance. But taking a longer view, Cruz's Senate attendance is not much worse than that of previous presidential contenders, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 presidential cycle.
That comparison illustrates the evolution of presidential campaigning in the last eight years. McCain spent his time away from the Senate working over New Hampshire voters one by one in town halls. Cruz's absences rarely correlate with public events, but in at least two instances, news reports surfaced of him attending fundraisers in Dallas and New York on missed vote days.
"I think anyone running for president is going to have very competing demands on their time," former GOP Senate operative Brian Walsh said. "That is the reality of running these days — you have to raise tens of millions of dollars."
"It’s understandable that people are going to have to make tough decisions, and that goes for every candidate," he added.
For several weeks this spring, the calculation paid off. Cruz was not considered a top-tier candidate for the presidency until his campaign rollout.
He missed three days' worth of votes beginning on March 23, when he announced his candidacy in Lynchburg, Va. The day after, he did a series of media interviews in New York City, including with The Texas Tribune. That travel corresponded with a "10-city fundraising tour" that extended into the Easter and Passover congressional recess.
Cruz shocked the political world in mid-April, when his campaign revealed a net haul of $4.3 million in its first nine days.
The senator's truancy was mostly ignored until he missed the biggest Senate vote of the term, even if it was mostly symbolic.
Cruz had voted against U.S. attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch both in committee and in another procedural vote, which were her toughest hurdles to clear on her way to confirmation. But he ducked out of the U.S. Capitol for Lynch's official confirmation vote on April 23.
When it was reported that he was scheduled to attend a fundraiser at the Dallas home of GOP donor Tom Hicks, the criticism rained down.
It did not help that, less than a year before, Cruz railed against President Obama on the Senate floor for not visiting the U.S.-Mexico border while on a fundraising trip to Texas and California.
“It is scandalous that the president has more time to be fundraiser in chief than he does to be commander in chief,” Cruz lambasted Obama last July. “He cannot be bothered to address the human suffering.”
But Cruz defended the missed confirmation vote on Lynch, saying the deal was already done.
"The cloture vote was the vote that mattered. I voted 'no,' and she was confirmed because Republican leadership chose to confirm her," Cruz said a week later, per NBC News. "I disagree with that decision."
Regardless, Cruz’s attendance improved in May: He missed four out of 27 votes before the Memorial Day recess. Cruz sources add that as recently as last week he canceled campaign events for votes.
Until the lead-up to Cruz’s official presidential candidacy announcement, he had a near-perfect attendance this term, and he's voted about 89 percent of the time since he took office in January 2013, according to GovTrack, a government transparency website.
But between March 16 and the end of April, Cruz’s attendance plummeted.
"Sen. Cruz’s number one priority is representing the people of Texas," Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier wrote in an email. "He works on their behalf and is fighting for their interests wherever he goes — whether he is in Texas, in D.C. or traveling the country."
So far, Cruz has missed 25 percent of votes since the beginning of the year. Here is how he compares with his Senate rivals:
- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., missed 19 percent.
- Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., missed 13 percent.
- Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who is running for the Democratic nomination, missed 3 percent.
- Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., missed 1 percent.
Cruz's absences have not derailed Senate business, nor meant the difference between a law passing or dying.
And given Cruz’s contrarian nature, Republicans are not necessarily inclined to miss him if he's gone, since he's not viewed as a reliable party-line vote in the first place. The logic among Republicans on Capitol Hill is that Cruz's vote might matter more often if he was backing party leadership.
If Cruz is like practically every other senator to run for president in recent memory, Texans will likely have to get used to having only one senator attending floor votes.
Then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had better attendance records during the first six months of the 2008 presidential cycle. Between January and the end of June 2007, Obama missed 10 percent of votes, while Clinton missed only 3 percent.
But both Democratic candidates' absenteeism skyrocketed later that year as the nomination fight neared the Iowa caucuses.
Obama’s worst quarter was the final three months of 2007, when he missed 89 percent of his votes. Clinton missed 84 percent of votes in that same three-month period.
McCain, the Republican nominee of that cycle, skipped so many of his official duties that The Washington Post regularly catalogued his absences.
In the first six months of 2007, McCain missed 52 percent of his votes. And as the presumptive nominee in 2008, McCain went five and a half months without voting, for a total of 115 straight missed votes
At the same point in the 2004 cycle, then-Sen. John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, had an equally unimpressive attendance record. In the first six months of 2003, he missed 48 percent of Senate votes.
But Walsh, the GOP operative who is often at odds with the Tea Party, cautioned that the Kerry and McCain comparisons to Cruz are limited.
“The reality is [Kerry and McCain] spent many years in the Senate, knee deep drafting and passing legislation," he said. "It’s surprising that [Cruz] and his staff would put himself in that position, especially considering he has very limited experience as it is."
By Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune