Texas has sent more than its share of nutty people to Washington—folks like Congressman Louie Gohmert, who, just days into 2013, defined hammers as a type of assault weapon and previously cried “terror babies” on Anderson Cooper. They may make a lot of noise and make some extreme statements, but at the end of the day, their impact is negligible.
Don't expect Ted Cruz to be one of these people.
Just a week into 2013, Cruz, the newly elected U.S. senator from Texas, has made a number of speeches that might lead many to to dismiss him as another hard-liner with little chance of having significant influence in the Senate. Over the weekend, he called the fiscal=cliff compromise “a lousy deal” for conservatives and made clear he wasn’t eager to work too closely with Democrats. “I don't think what Washington needs is more compromise,” he told Fox News. “I think what Washington needs is more common sense and more principle.” On PBS last night, he dismissed almost all attempts at gun control as unconstitutional. He also wrote an editorial and publicly announced he expects to oppose Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of Defense, arguing the former senator "advocates weakness" abroad.
It all seems too much. After all, even in this polarized era, the Senate remains a place where working across the aisle can get things done, and Rand Paul-types don’t see many legislative successes there.
Still, Cruz is more than meets the eye, and he’s shown himself to have some great political instincts. For one thing, he got elected against some pretty serious odds. Sure, he got lucky that the state's primary date kept getting pushed back thanks to redistricting court battles, which gave him more time to spread his message. Texas governor Rick Perry's failed presidential bid also helped him out, reshuffling some of the power structure in Texas. But none of that changes that he went up against Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, one of the state's most powerful and well-funded politicians who had backing from a slew of power-brokers, including Perry. Dewhurst may have run a lousy campaign, but that hardly undermines Cruz's smart one. The Harvard- and Princeton-educated lawyer who worked in the Bush administration and later earned millions as a corporate lawyer, successfully messaged himself as an outsider ready to take on the establishment. He got funding and buzz from national Tea Party groups and performed well in debates. State politicos were almost all impressed by the manuever. "He's admired," Bill Miller, one of Austin's most powerful lobbyists, told me. "Not agreed with, but admired."
“Anybody who says don't pay any attention [to him] ... will soon learn.” His positions may be extreme, to the point of alienating, but he's successfully appealed to both voters and other insiders
Back in August, after Cruz secured the GOP nomination (and therefore, the seat), folks like Erick Erickson, the editor of conservative site RedState, were already getting anxious about establishment efforts to seduce the new boy wonder:
The Republicans in Washington aim to co-opt him, to pacify him, and to make him an ally in preservation of the status quo. They will use conservative editorialists, fundraisers, and others to do the dirty work. They will try to surround him with staff who can “tame” him and “show him the ropes.” They will push conservative think tankers on him who know the game and where their real allegiance is. They will try to undermine him while building him up.
Obviously, Cruz's latest remarks will ease concerns for folks like Erickson. The new senator is starting the year with guns blazing, and he'll likely get more breathing room from the far right as a result. But from here he could move in any number of directions—he might choose to quietly make inroads within the Senate or he may choose to become a more likeable version of Jim DeMint, taking the podium to make an eloquent case for the far-right worldview. After the presidential loss, a fresh face offering intellectual-sounding justifications for conservative policies is likely appealing to just about everyone on the right.
As Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy writes in his profile of the senator, “Cruz's greatest asset is that he lives in both worlds”—the establishment and the extreme. He's also been a debate champion and a top litigator who won the Best Brief Award from the National Association of Attorneys General five years in a row. Cruz has waited a long time to take the national stage, and whatever happens, the guy is smart and politically-savvy—and unlikely to forgo a chance at increasing his power and influence.
“He's basically some lightning,” Miller told me. “He is gonna strike. It's unpredictable about when and where.”