By Erik Wasson and Elise Viebeck - 09/21/13 04:00 PM EDT
Next week could be a defining moment for Sen. Ted Cruz. [WATCH VIDEO]
The presidential contender’s quest to defund ObamaCare has made him more popular with the base than ever, but that acclaim could fade if he is perceived as retreating from battle — or if the strategy he’s advocated backfires on the GOP.
“I think what happens in this fight will have a big bearing on the standing of a lot of these folks in our party,” Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) said. “It is one thing to talk, it is another thing to deliver.”
Strategists said the senator's crusade against ObamaCare will almost certainly be an asset in Republican primaries should he run for president in 2016, though it could also come back to haunt him if he alienates the party establishment.
“Cruz has a tremendous connection with the base. Republicans underestimate that at their own peril,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.
“The stances he's taking are going to play well in the early primary states,” said Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist who worked for the McCain-Palin presidential ticket.
But while grassroots backing for Cruz runs deep, his colleagues have begun to complain openly that he is putting his presidential ambitions ahead of what’s best for the party.
“There’s a lot of people upset with the things he’s done,” one senior House Republican said.
“Some people would say if members of Congress don’t like you that will help you,” the member said. “I’ve never been of the theory that making enemies is helpful ever, really, in a campaign. “
The criticism of Cruz erupted into view after he issued a statement that flatly said Senate Republicans are powerless to stop Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from preserving funds for ObamaCare.
“Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so. At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people,” Cruz said in a statement.
House Republicans reacted with indignation.
Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) said Cruz was “waving the white flag,” while Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) called him “a fraud.”
Political observers agree that Cruz’s brand could be tarnished if the ObamaCare fight results in a government shutdown on Oct. 1 that is blamed on the GOP.
“Only if there is a shutdown does this come back to really hurt him, and that's an unlikely scenario. Either he's going to win, or [House leadership] is going to cave,” Mackowiak said.
O'Connell also predicted the congressional defunding gambit will fail, and repeatedly compared it to Pickett's Charge, one of the bloodiest failed assaults of the Civil War.
"The lesson here is, don't listen to someone whose sole interest is winning the 2016 GOP presidential primary," O'Connell said.
But overall, the heat Cruz is taking from Republican leaders is only endearing him to Republican primary voters, strategists said.
“After all this is over, Ted Cruz is going to be more popular than ever,” one conservative activist said. “Only the most out of touch, establishment operative would think otherwise. This week only made him stronger for 2016.”
“The fact that every time Boehner and Cantor come up with a plan it causes donations to pour into Heritage Action and Club for Growth tells you all you need to know,” the operative said. “The idea that base Republican primary voters care about John Boehner’s feelings is laughable.”
House members who have been critical of Cruz said they would be watching closely to see how he resists ObamaCare funding in the Senate — and speculation is mounting that he could mount a rare talking filibuster of the bill.
“Ted Cruz has a message the resonates with a lot of Texans and a lot of the American people. This is his chance to prove he can get the job done,” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) told The Hill.
Duffy said Cruz’s actions would speak louder than his words.
“He has a lot of people on the right thinking he can hold the line in the Senate. I think a lot of them will be disappointed if he can’t hold 41 votes to filibuster,” he said.
A senior House Republican said he was “in no great distress” to see Cruz in a do-or-die moment.
“He’s like a guy who starts a fight in a bar and hits the door as soon as the first swing is taken,” the senior House Republican said. “We gave him exactly what he wanted, and we’ll see if he can perform. My guess is he can’t.”
That same Republican agreed that the dust-up with House leaders could serve Cruz well in 2016, however.
“You can say running against Washington is always a popular move. So in that sense it may well be helpful,” the member said. “But you also make a lot of enemies, and people who could have been your friends or have a lot of confidence in you.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) predicted “the family spats will take care of themselves,” and that Cruz will continue his rapid political ascent after the fight is through.
“Ted really has made progress by focusing outside Washington. By building popular support. …. I don’t think that will change. That’s his strength and where his comfort level is,” Brady said.