SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- He’s being touted as the Marco Rubio of Texas, an up-and-coming Latino politician with solid Tea Party backing.
Ted Cruz, 41, who grew up in Houston as the son of Cuban refugees, knows he’s at the cusp of a major political breakthrough. He’s in a close race to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison as the next U.S. senator from Texas.
As the keynote speaker at a Tea Party Express national bus tour stop in San Antonio earlier this month, Cruz knew just how to quench his audience’s political thirst.
“And when we win this race, I give you my solemn word: Texas will lead the fight to take our country back,” he concluded as the crowd of around 200 people exploded with clapping and chanting.
This Senate seat is a lock for the GOP, so the real race is seen as the party’s primary since the winner is expected to easily defeat the Democratic nominee.
Cruz has consistently polled second to current Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who has the backing of the state’s GOP machinery, including long-time governor Rick Perry.
But even second-place status has come as a surprise to many political experts, since Cruz has essentially skyrocketed from political obscurity — he has not previously held elected office and has little money.
“Ted Cruz has proven himself to be a credible guy,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I just don’t think he’s going to win this Senate race, but he has brought himself nearer the top of the queue for other races later in Texas or perhaps a run for Congress.”
But don’t tell Tea Party backers that Cruz won’t win. At the San Antonio rally, he received rock star treatment. As other speakers warmed up the crowd, he was consistently approached by supporters. One wanted clarification on his Israel policy. Another dismissed negative poll numbers. Several just wanted to give him encouraging handshakes and hugs.
But at least one rally participant remained a bit skeptical of the candidate. The man, who declined to give his name, donned matching American flag T-shirt and baseball cap.
Getting right up on Cruz’s face and raising his index finger in the air, the man grilled Cruz on his immigration stance.
“You will not get my vote unless I hear from your lips that you are for securing our border with armed military, the Army,” he told Cruz. “And for deporting every single illegal. Illegal immigration is my big issue and nobody talks about it. I haven’t heard you talk about it yet.”
Others turned around, keenly awaiting the candidate’s response. If he felt any pressure, Cruz didn’t show it. He stared right back at his questioner and nodded several times before responding.
Then all it took was a couple of strong-toned sentences to disarm the skeptic.
“Look, I agree with you,” Cruz began. “We’ve got a crisis in illegal immigration. And we’ve got to secure the border. In a 9-11 world, it makes no sense, it is nuts, that we don’t know who’s coming into this country.”
That’s all the man needed to hear.
“Amen,” he countered with nods of his own — he did warn Cruz that he needed to repeat the same words at every public outing.
Cruz defies the stereotype of a pro-immigrant Latino politician. The candidate is not shy about being an anti-illegal-immigration hardliner. It’s part of what he calls the most conservative platform in the race.
One of his first political ads highlighted what he sees as his top career achievement thus far — representing Texas twice at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that made global headlines.
Jose Medellin was one of several dozen Mexican nationals on U.S. death row seeking redemption under the argument that they were never afforded a chance to contact Mexican consular officials when they were arrested as per the Geneva Convention.
Then-President George Bush supported a move to have the World Court review the cases. But Texas claimed the move was illegal, that the state didn’t abide by the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court.
Cruz, then solicitor general of Texas, argued against the U.S. federal government and the United Nations — and won. He had that job from 2003 to 2008. Previous posts included mostly mid-level federal government stops, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.
He was also an advisor to the 2000 George W. Bush presidential campaign and served as the first Latino to clerk for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
His passion for politics was instilled in him by his father, who fled Cuba at 18 with $100 in his pockets.
“When I was a kid, my dad used to say to me over and over again, when we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to,” Cruz said. “If we lose our freedom here, where do we go? There’s no question that better explains why I’m running for U.S. Senate.”
It’s a tricky political balance, trying to avoid being pigeonholed as an ethnic candidate while capitalizing on the Republican Party’s dire need to capture more Latino voters.
Cruz says it’s about showing them they naturally belong with the GOP.
“Faith, family, patriotism, hard work, responsibility. Those are all conservative values,” he said.
Many pundits still write off GOP chances of winning a significant chunk of the Latino vote.
Ted Cruz is out to prove them wrong.
If polls are right and he keeps Dewhurst, the frontrunner, from winning a majority in the May 29 primary, the race goes to a run-off in July.
And in that scenario, Cruz is confident massive Tea Party turnout will carry him to victory.