AUSTIN, Texas – Ted Cruz is talking again about chaos in Washington, only this time he’s not the one causing it.
“If the next two years are nothing but a political circus of impeachment that paralyzes the federal government, that effectively locks every federal agency in gridlock, then I think we will see little to no meaningful legislation for two years,” Cruz said after a recent campaign event, adding that things may devolve into “simply naked political warfare. Mad Max at Thunderdome.”
Only five years ago, the same Ted Cruz rode a wave of tea party outrage to the Senate with the declared intention of wreaking havoc on the status quo.
And he did, for establishment Republicans as much as President Barack Obama – helping to spark a government shutdown, calling the chamber’s majority leader a liar and inciting a pack of conservatives that later toppled House Speaker John Boehner, who later branded Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh.”
But with GOP analysts now worried that turmoil around the Donald Trump White House is hurting the party’s midterm election chances, Cruz suddenly is casting himself as a bulwark against the forces of political anarchy.
He’ll help keep Congress’ wheels turning, he insists. To that end, the onetime bomb-thrower is trying to soften his image, saying he’s misunderstood and actually quite funny. Cruz’s often incendiary father, who made a splash in the 2012 campaign with controversial statements, also has stayed out of the spotlight.
The change reflects more than a political pro’s talent for adapting to circumstances. Now, there’s the pressing matter of keeping his job.
After an anonymous New York Times op-ed piece and journalist Bob Woodward’s book portraying a reckless president, polls have shown the GOP’s ability to hold the House increasingly in doubt amid concerns by troubled moderate voters.
And Cruz finds himself in a surprisingly close race against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney implied that Cruz’s lack of likeability could make him vulnerable.
“There is a very real possibility we will win a race for Senate in Florida and lose a race in Texas for Senate,” Mulvaney said recently. “How likable is the candidate? That still counts.”
How can Cruz reassure the more centrist voters that he’s even-keeled and responsible while still exciting Trump supporters who thrive on the Washington tumult?
Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who worked for Cruz’s 2012 Texas Republican primary opponent but also for Cruz’s largest super PAC during the 2016 presidential race, said Cruz’s campaign is crafted to bridge the difficult divide.
That’s because “no one wants more gridlock,” he said.
“I think even people who may not be super fans of Ted surely don’t want Congress to be worse,” Carney said.
Cruz rejects the idea of being “wild-eyed” during his early Senate days, and this isn’t the first time he’s tried to show a softer side. In 2015, the senator made a video for Buzzfeed where he famously did character voices from “The Simpsons.” He’s also re-enacted scenes from his favorite movie, the sappy and romantic “Princess Bride.”
“I like to have fun. I enjoy life. I like to make jokes,” Cruz told GQ magazine recently.
And, whereas his 2012 speeches sounded like fiery tea party rallies, Cruz now spends much of his time on the campaign trail highlighting his work inside government to secure post-Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds and his determination to protect Trump administration accomplishments, including tax cuts and reduced regulation.
As a former Ivy League debate champion, Cruz is especially well suited for the task of stroking different camps while not having it sound like a contradiction. But not everyone is buying it.
“Pot, meet kettle,” laughed Manny Garcia, the Texas Democratic Party’s deputy executive director, who noted that Cruz “has used obstructionism as the primary driver for his national fame.”
“He presented himself as a person driven by principle but has now revealed himself as a politician who will say anything to hold onto power,” Garcia said.
Still, Cruz pollster Chris Wilson said the candidate always has been ready for this new role.
Today, “It’s a different time that calls for a different type of leadership,” Wilson said. “The beauty of Ted Cruz is, I think he’s well positioned for both of those.”
Also adjusting is Cruz’s 79-year-old father, Rafael, who spent years barnstorming Texas and often turned heads with inflammatory comments, like when he called for sending Obama “back to Kenya,” and suggested black people “need to be educated” to stop supporting minimum wage laws. He continues campaigning, but without so much fanfare. The elder Cruz still insists, however, that the stakes have never been higher.
“If we lose Texas,” Rafael Cruz is fond of telling rallies “then we lose America.”