WASHINGTON — Six years ago, Ted Cruz was vulnerable. He was widely derided as Congress’ least likable Republican senator — by members of his own party. And in his home state, he was facing off against a barnstorming Democratic opponent so formidable that he was drawing GOP voters across the aisle.
Today the conservative iconoclast still elicits the strong emotions and frequent ire for his bombast and penchant for division. He still remains unafraid to buck his own party leadership when he feels it’s being insufficiently conservative. But as he gears up for his second reelection bid in 2024, Cruz is facing a different political terrain than he did in 2018.
He’ll run with more power in the Senate and more name recognition around the country. Trumpism has elevated combative lawmakers in Cruz’s mold within the GOP, and as his party has taken rightward turns over the past decade, Cruz steadily polls as one of the most popular figures among Texas Republicans.
“Everybody comes here as a novice, and we all learn as we serve in this body,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas’ senior Republican senator. “I think like all of us, he's grown into his responsibilities.”
The question for Texas Democrats is how will they fare without the star power and fundraising prowess of Beto O’Rourke, who let Democrats come within three percentage points from winning statewide office in his bid against Cruz for the first time in decades. Both Republicans and Democrats say they have forces working in their favor this election cycle.
Republicans won’t be running a midterm election year with their party’s president at the top of the ticket, as was the case in 2018, when Democrats swept across the country in a show of discontent with the White House. (Former President Donald Trump could animate Democratic voters again if he’s the Republican nominee.) Meanwhile, Democrats say their base is still motivated by events like the overturning of Roe v. Wade that helped them beat the odds in minimizing their losses in last year’s midterm elections.
O’Rourke hasn’t made any indication that he’ll run. He didn’t answer the Tribune’s attempts for an interview, and his former campaign staff said they don’t know his plans. Operatives in both parties stressed the El Pasoan’s unique, prodigious talent as a major factor in 2018. O’Rourke’s three high-profile runs for higher office left behind robust statewide infrastructure for future Democratic candidates, but a new Democrat will also have to recreate a cultural wave and innovative strategy to replicate O’Rourke’s near win, operatives in both parties said.
A new Democratic challenger
U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, is seriously considering taking on the challenge, The Texas Tribune confirmed. His interest in the race was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.
The NFL linebacker-turned-attorney beat Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Waco, in a highly competitive U.S. House race as part of the blue wave that swept Congress in 2018 in response to Trump. He’s a popular figure among his fellow lawmakers, being elected co-president of his freshman class and chosen again in 2020 to represent newer members to House leadership.
The filing deadline is still months away, and he declined to be interviewed for this story as his office said he is not publicly commenting on the race at the moment.
“He’s not serious about being a United States senator,” Allred said of Cruz during a podcast interview with political commentators James Carville and Al Hunt, where he suggested the senator was more interested in running for president. “He’s doing three podcasts a week over there. You know, I’m a member of Congress representing Dallas, and I'm pretty busy during the week. I can’t imagine representing 30 million Texans and still having time to do three podcasts a week.”
Cruz hasn’t explicitly ruled out his own presidential run in 2024, potentially launching another bid after failing to win the 2016 Republican nomination to Trump. But he has repeatedly said he’s focused on his Senate reelection next year. Texas law allows Cruz to pursue both offices simultaneously, but he would likely face steep competition from several more prominent Republicans in a White House race, including Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence. Of those, only Trump has openly said he is running for president.
Beyond Allred, the bench of high-profile Democrats who could credibly face off against Cruz has thinned as Texas Democrats have overpromised and underdelivered in virtually every election since the 2018 cycle. A flurry of other names have been floated by Texas Democratic lawmakers and strategists, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Castro brothers, who perennially grab the hope of their party. But no major candidates have openly stepped forward yet or have begun signaling serious interest. (None of them offered comments when contacted by the Tribune).
Colin Allred took the stage in Dallas after he won his bid for U.S. representative against incumbent Pete Sessions in the 2018 midterms on Nov. 6, 2018. Credit: Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune
Allred’s allies say he has a fresh approach that could give him a fighting chance. Unlike O’Rourke’s celebrity run, operating largely on getting first-time voters out to the polls with an aspirational message of what Texas could be, Allred would have a legislative record with wins he can tout from his home district during his four years in Congress — almost all of which he spent in the majority. O’Rourke was never in Congress while his party held power, so his legislative record centered on compromise-focused packages that were less sexy to point to during campaign events.
“The skateboarding House candidate is not going to be taken seriously as a senator. People have an expectation of what senators are supposed to be, and Beto O'Rourke wasn’t it,” said Rick Tyler, a political strategist who worked on Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign but who has since split ways with the senator. “All to say that if the Democrats do field a serious candidate, Cruz could have a real challenge on his hands.”
Allred was a reliable foot soldier in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package and Democrats’ 2022 climate and health care package. He championed bringing nearly $300 million for a Veterans Affairs health care facility in Dallas along with Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie, and pushed to open a COVID-19 facility in a vacated North Texas hospital.
Allred proudly ran in 2018 as a centrist who has tempered some leftist attacks on Texas’ oil and gas industry. He has the endorsement of the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as the powerful AFL-CIO labor union. His bipartisan bonafides were apparent in his 2018 victory against then-incumbent Sessions, whom he defeated by a 6.5-point margin.
O’Rourke’s 2018 run failed to break his party’s drought in Texas, but Democrats are quick to point out he succeeded in making a statewide race competitive in Texas for the first time in years. His backers stress O’Rourke’s efforts made the rest of the country aware of what’s possible for Democrats in the state, if only they have the resources needed to win.
O’Rourke broke ground for Democrats in his aggressive volunteer mobilization, ambitious ground operations visiting every county in the state and novel ventures into digital advertising on social media and text messages. His campaign targeted new voters to mobilize, hosting at times four or five town halls per day while he was still a congressman. It was a strategy he continued in his 2022 run against Gov. Greg Abbott, aiming to knock on at least 5 million doors before the election.
“The most important thing a campaign like that leaves behind is people,” said Zack Malitz, who was the field director for O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign. “The volunteer army you build doesn’t go anywhere.”
His ability to capture national attention also brought in record amounts of out-of-state dollars to his campaign, as he outraised Cruz by over $33 million in the 2018 Senate race.
Even Republicans are quick to recognize that O’Rourke was an exceptional candidate who caught them by surprise.
Cornyn called O’Rourke’s meteoric rise a “wake-up call for all of us,” adding that in “2020, when I was on the ballot, we were well prepared because we got that warning shot across our bow in 2018.” But Cruz supporters and Democrats agree that whoever tries to replicate his successes can’t rely solely on what the El Pasoan left behind.
“You have to have a campaign and a candidate with the same commitment to building a people-powered campaign that Beto has had over the course of his career,” Malitz said. “And that’s not inevitable.”
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, speaks to a crowd at the Social Club in Edinburg during a campaign event on Sept. 23, 2018. Credit: Reynaldo Leal for The Texas Tribune
Democrats have yet to replicate the magic of 2018, enduring a number of unsuccessful, high-profile losses that Republicans say only proves that the minority party can only go so far in the state. Air Force veteran and Democratic Senate candidate MJ Hegar lost to Cornyn by a nearly 10-point margin in 2020. In 2022, O’Rourke lost to Abbott by 11 points, despite raising $81.6 million to Abbott’s $78.5 million.
But while some Democrats outside Texas may be wary of giving money when the state has consistently shown its red character, Democrats “are running against probably the biggest villain in the country” and will have no problem mobilizing against Cruz, said Jody Casey, O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign manager.
The Cruz factor
Cruz’s own celebrity status has only further solidified since the 2018 election. He is a regular fixture in conservative media circles, never shying from the Fox News hit, and has run for the past three years his own podcast, “Verdict with Ted Cruz.” The podcast is syndicated across the country in partnership with iHeartRadio, the largest radio syndicator in the United States, spreading his name-checking attacks to hundreds of millions of listeners.
Cruz also has written two books since his 2018 run, where he doesn’t pull punches against what he views as toxic, unproductive or just plain stupid. He has a third on the way about “woke takeover of education, big business, the media, and Hollywood,” he wrote in an announcement for the book.
While he may have won over members of his own party, few Republicans can incite the same amount of abhorrence among Democrats as Cruz. And he’s given Democrats a lot of new fodder, which they expect to be his undoing since his last run.
This will be Cruz’s first election since the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when Cruz was a leader in objecting to certifying the 2020 presidential election results. And voters still remember his infamous trip to Cancun during the 2021 winter storm that left much of the state without power (he ultimately cut his family vacation short to return to Texas and called the decision a mistake).
“Texas remembers how he abandoned them during the freeze. I'm still seeing memes about that,” Casey said.
Cruz is acutely aware of the passion he inspires across the aisle and shrugs it off. His team simply points out that despite voters’ misgivings about Cruz as a person, Republicans in Texas value his work, with his approval rating consistently hovering around 80% among right-leaning Texans. That’s roughly in line with Abbott and consistently higher than Cornyn and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
“Ted Cruz is enemy No. 1 for Democrats in the state of Texas, and so I think they confuse their passionate hatred for him for their electoral strength in beating him,” said Sam Cooper, Cruz’s former deputy chief of staff who is serving as a consultant in Cruz’s reelection campaign. “What they don’t account for is that Ted Cruz is the most popular Republican in the state of Texas.”
Cruz’s approval ratings have grown among Republicans after his failed presidential run and have remained relatively stable since. Around 67% of Republican voters approved of his job performance around this time in his 2018 run, and he finished that campaign with an approval rating of nearly 80%.
Cruz finished his 2018 race with an all-time high approval among all voters at 47%. His popularity among Texans has consistently stayed around 40% to 45%.
Cooper also points out that all Republicans had a tough year in 2018, as the president’s party almost always does during their first midterm. Having a powerful Republican candidate at the top of the ticket could have a major sway in their favor next year, particularly against Biden, who is deeply unpopular in the state.
Meanwhile, Cruz’s critics contend he has spent much of his time in Congress obstructing legislation that would directly impact Texans. He voted against the bipartisan infrastructure package and Democrats’ climate and health bill, calling them both wasteful spending sprees. He also voted against last year’s bipartisan gun safety bill that was championed by Cornyn. All of those measures directly gave Texans billions of dollars and were supported by every congressional Democrat.
One of Cruz’s most career-defining moments was his role in the 2013 government shutdown, where he gave a 21-hour filibuster speech to gut the Affordable Care Act. Though it proved effective in galvanizing his base, it was a move that garnered groans among Cruz’s more seasoned Republican colleagues.
“If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, famously quipped in 2016. Graham, who ran against Trump and Cruz in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, later said the choice between the two candidates was akin to “being shot or poisoned.”
Graham later apologized for the comments in a joint MSNBC interview with Cruz where the South Carolinian said: “Love is everywhere.”
No longer a rookie senator
Cruz continues to be consistently ranked as one of the most right-voting members of the Senate and is still not afraid to express his frustrations with his own party leadership. He backed a right-wing rebellion within his party against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last year over Republicans’ inability to recapture the upper chamber, and he voted against bipartisan legislation that would make it harder for Congress to stall the certification of presidential election results as he had done.
The bellicose tone Cruz espouses in his public dealings can also be exhausting for voters, said Roderick Hart, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in campaign rhetoric.
“A lot of Americans are becoming tired of all of this vituperation, and presumably it will run its own course,” Hart said. “Cruz is having his moment, but it seems to me in the long run, including in Texas, people are going to be tired.”
But Cornyn said Cruz has also “developed” into an effective lawmaker and gets a lot of work done beyond the bombast. In comparison to Allred, Cruz also has considerably more staff and resources as a senator than a member of the House. He has a diverse legislative record ranging from the parochial (renaming a Houston post office) to the national (barring U.N. representatives who were engaged in espionage or terrorism from entering the U.S.).
Cruz has sponsored or co-sponsored 58 bills that have been signed into law, though only three of them were bills he originally sponsored. He was ranked the 16th most effective Republican senator by the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University’s Center for Effective Lawmaking, up from 32nd when he was last up for election.
"Sen. Cruz has very important responsibilities in the Senate,” Cornyn said. “I think he's in pretty good shape. But I wouldn't take anything for granted."