By Alexander Bolton - 05/06/13 09:00 AM EDT
Ted Cruz has shaken up the Senate since his arrival four months ago and Republican colleagues are divided over whether his forcefulness is magnetic or divisive.
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• The Hill's Alexander Bolton discusses Sen. Ted Cruz's impact on the GOP.
If, as was reported last week, he might run for the White House in 2016, is he a Ronald Reagan whose adamant conservative principles will confound the naysayers, attract voters and lead his party to national victory? Or is he a Barry Goldwater, whose conservatism was equally apparent and who inspired future generations, but nevertheless led his party to a crushing defeat in 1964?
The Texan has become a hero of movement conservatives by taking on members of his own party and scolding them for apathy and defeatism.
It is what many had hoped to see from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who like Cruz defeated a heavily-favored opponent backed by the establishment in a Republican primary. But Rubio has taken a more cautious approach and irked conservatives recently by teaming up with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to craft immigration legislation.
Cruz’s aggression has also rankled colleagues in a chamber where seniority rules.
He created an uproar by calling his colleagues “squishes” for what he considered weak opposition to gun-control legislation. On Friday, he publicly challenged Vice President Biden to a debate on guns and crime.
Several colleagues initially did not approve of Cruz’s push for an amendment to defund the 2010 Affordable Care Act. When he later told the Conservative Political Action Conference that GOP senators had to be prodded to fight ObamaCare, the comment inflamed tensions still more.
Cruz’s Senate colleagues fear that he makes them look ready to go along with business as usual in Washington, which makes them more likely to be challenged and defeated in primaries.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who could face a primary in 2014, has stuck to Cruz like glue, voting in lockstep with his junior colleague. They were two of only three Republicans to vote against former Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) nomination to become secretary of State this year.
Cruz’s rivals in the party whisper that he is too confrontational, extreme and almost boorish.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Cruz and his conservative colleague Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) “wacko birds” and dismissed their attempted filibuster of the nomination of CIA director John Brennan as ridiculous. McCain later apologized for the “wacko birds” remark.
Many conservative activists outside of Washington, on the other hand, are delighted with Cruz. “I’ve been in about 25 cities in the last few months. All I have to do is bring up Ted Cruz’s name and people stand up and applaud,” DeMint said. “What people want outside of Washington is totally different of what you hear on the inside of Washington.
“Here people don’t like you to break the status quo, but out across the country people know that our country is in trouble and they want some people who will stand up against the status quo.”
The intense interest in Cruz among conservatives across the country has started to filter into Washington, where rumors buzzed last week about him mulling a 2016 presidential bid.
He promptly dismissed this talk on his Facebook page as “wild speculation.” But he appears to be laying the groundwork for a run. He spoke at the South Carolina Republican Party’s Silver Elephant Dinner Friday, an event Rubio, a likely presidential candidate in 2016, headlined last year.
Some Republicans worry Cruz could lead the party to electoral disaster. One Republican strategist compared him to former Sen. George McGovern (S.D.), whose victory in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary represented the high-water mark of liberal influence in the modern party.
“If you look back at political history we’re on the same glide path as the Democrats in the late ’60s and the ’70s,” said the GOP strategist. “We could have a McGovern-type candidate we need to get out of our system. Ted Cruz would be at the top of that list. He can win the nomination and that’s alarming.”
Democrats say they would love for Cruz to take the 2016 plunge.
“I’m all for it,” said Joe Trippi, who managed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “If he can get the nomination, it would help Democratic prospects for winning. If that side emerges in the GOP primary, it will be a long, tough rebranding mission for the party.”
2016 is shaping up as a battle for the soul of the GOP.
At one end of the spectrum are centrists such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has excoriated his own party’s leaders.
At the other end are Paul and Cruz, who argue for a return to first principles and adherence to a stricter interpretation of the Constitution.
Conservative activists say Cruz is reshaping the party for the better.
“We’ve been advocates for a change of culture in the Senate that Jim DeMint started. The go-along-to-get-along culture has resulted in almost $17 trillion in debt,” said Chris Chocola, president of The Club for Growth, which spent over $5 million on independent expenditures to help Cruz upset Texas Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst in the 2012 Senate Republican primary.
“He’s certainly doing what he said he would do on the campaign [trail], which is unfortunately kind of a rare thing: advocating limited government, conservative principles and a pro-growth agenda,” he said.
Others in the party have taken veiled shots at Cruz, painting him as a grandstanding upstart. Cruz also has his ardent defenders in the party, and the friction between the two sides could erupt as 2016 draws nearer.
“This idea that a senator cannot tell his constituents what his colleagues are doing behind closed doors in Washington is ridiculous. If they don’t want anyone to know they are squishes, then they should stop being squishes,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, in response to the flak Cruz took after the gun-control debate.
Hoskins said the Senate Conservatives Fund would “make it a priority” to defeat any Republican senator who attacks Cruz for his comments.
Republican strategists are split over whether Cruz will be a hero or a headache for the party in 2014 and 2016.
“As a conservative messenger, he certainly knows exactly what he believes. He obviously won a pretty tough primary on that message,” said Chip Saltsman, who managed former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign. “He has certainly got a following around the country.
“Some people said Ronald Reagan was too conservative to be elected. How did that work out?” he said.