Cruz rose fast through the conservative legal ranks. He clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist after Harvard Law, advised George W. Bush's 2000 campaign on domestic policy, and recruited future Chief Justice John Roberts to join the Florida recount brigade. He served under John Ashcroft as an associate deputy attorney general and later returned to Texas, where in 2003 the state's attorney general, Greg Abbott, appointed him as solicitor general, tasked with handling the state's appellate cases, including those destined for the Supreme Court. "Ted was an intellectual driving force on all of the issues that we worked on," Abbott says.
On the campaign trail, Cruz has presented his tenure as solicitor general as the foundation for the work he hopes to do in Washington, on everything from national sovereignty to gay rights.
"Instead of reading comic books, he was reading Adam Smith, he was reading Milton Friedman, he was reading von Mises, he was reading Frédéric Bastiat," Cruz's father says.
Most of the cases Cruz argued before the Supreme Court shared a common theme—Texas' constitutional right to do as it pleases, free from Washington's meddling.
Of Cruz's eight oral arguments before the Supreme Court on behalf of Texas, five involved the death penalty, with Cruz arguing, at various points, that Texas should be allowed to execute the mentally ill, a Mexican national who hadn't been informed of his Vienna Convention right to speak to his consulate, and a man who raped his stepdaughter.
Other cases he took on reflected his conservative Christian ideology. On his campaign website, he touts successfully defending the inclusion of the term "under God" in the Texas Pledge of Allegiance and a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol. He notes that he fought in the courts to protect a Bible display installed on public property and to have the divorce of a same-sex couple's civil union invalidated because they'd gotten hitched in Vermont.
No one's been a bigger promoter of Cruz's accomplishments than Ted Cruz. Dewhurst's campaign, tired of hearing its opponent talk about his court cases, charged that Cruz had taken credit for the work of others. The Austin American-Statesman pointed out that he counted a case actually argued by Abbott as one of his own high-court victories. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank remembered meeting Cruz during the 2000 presidential campaign and being aggressively pitched on his résumé: "When I mentioned this self-promotional effort to a senior Bush adviser, I received a knowing eye roll in response," he recalled. Lyle Denniston, who's covered the high court for five decades and currently writes for SCOTUSblog, says, "Personally, I have found Ted to be very engaging." But, he adds, "He does love to talk about himself."
Conservatives hailed Cruz's primary victory as the dawn of a new era. "Ted's nomination sent a strong signal that a new conservative Republican Party is being born," declared Reagan-era New Right stalwart Richard Viguerie.
Cruz's campaign deployed a brand of Glenn Beck-like Tentherism, warning, among other things, that the United Nations was plotting with George Soros to get the federal government to crack down on golf courses in the name of sustainability. He pledged, à la Ron Paul, to eliminate the departments of education, commerce, and energy, along with the TSA and the IRS. He floated ideas that were unorthodox by traditional GOP standards but pet issues among Federalist Society types, including the use of interstate compacts—an agreement between two or more states—to nullify the individual mandate that is the backbone of health care reform. His theory, drawing on Supreme Court precedent, is that once Congress green-lights such a compact, it will supersede whatever federal law is in place, acting as a backdoor veto.
Cruz's ideas did not catch on at first. In May, he lost his initial primary—badly—to Dewhurst. But with the vote spread out among four main candidates, Dewhurst, who had poured nearly $20 million of his personal fortune into the campaign, came a few points short of the majority needed to win the nomination outright. Which meant that Cruz and Dewhurst headed to a runoff, where turnout was 21 percent lower. Cruz's victory—by 14 points—was made possible by a small cohort of die-hard activists, a last-minute flood of outside support and money from groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and its super-PAC, and a flurry of barnstorming by national conservatives, including Rand Paul, Jim DeMint, and Sarah Palin.
Cruz ran as an outsider, even though his credentials—Harvard Law Review, Rehnquist court, Bush campaign, Perry administration—did not fit that billing. But, schooled since childhood in its tenets, he spoke the language of the tea party fluently. And those same credentials gave establishment Republicans hope; after his runoff win, RedState's Erick Erickson, an early booster, warned that the Republican establishment was making "near sexual advances" toward Cruz, intent on coaxing him to their side. Cruz's greatest asset is that he lives in both worlds.
Last October, at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington, Cruz brought down the house with a story about his father's appearance at a Texas tea party rally. At that event, Rafael Cruz, a programmer turned pastor, had launched into a lengthy discourse on an inspirational young leader who'd come to power on a message of hope and change. "He never once mentioned the words 'Barack Obama'; he simply described what Fidel Castro did," Ted Cruz said. Ted's style bore all the trappings of a polished debater, everything scripted down to the hand gesture. He clasped and unclasped his hands and, for emphasis, brought them crashing down like a concert pianist. "Now what does it say about you that you hear what Castro did and you think immediately that it must be Barack Obama?"
During the opening night of the Republican convention in August, Cruz regaled the sea of delegates with "a love story of freedom" and again gave a shout-out to his dad, whose story has featured prominently in the campaign.
"When he came to America, él no tenía nada, pero tenía corazón," Cruz said, breaking into Spanish (a language he doesn't speak fluently). "He had nothing, but he had heart. A heart for freedom."
The following night, I came across Rafael Cruz on the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. He had come down from the VIP seats to watch Paul Ryan accept his party's vice presidential nomination with the Texas delegation, a lone head of thinning white hair in a crowd of matching cowboy hats and Lone Star shirts. Ted Cruz, through his aides, had declined my repeated requests for an interview, so I thought I'd try my luck with his father, a onetime pro-Castro revolutionary who had been jailed and tortured in Cuba for revolting against the repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista. He had later grown disillusioned with the authoritarian ways of the new Cuban leader he'd helped to empower.
Over the pounding beat of the convention hall band, the elder Cruz reflected on how he'd first nudged his son to the right by talking up Ronald Reagan at the dinner table and driving him to Houston to work with Rolland Storey. "Instead of reading comic books, he was reading Adam Smith, he was reading Milton Friedman, he was reading von Mises, he was reading Frédéric Bastiat," he told me. "I would tell him, 'You know, when I lost my freedom in Cuba I had a place to come to. We lose our freedoms here, where are we going to go?'"
Two decades after the end of the Cold War, Cruz the elder's tales of Batista and the false promise of Castro may feel like they belong in a time capsule. But Ted Cruz has picked up the torch. For all the talk of Cruz as the GOP candidate of the future, there's something anachronistic in what he's selling. The 10th Amendment theories he espouses have cropped up time and again—most prominently, perhaps, during the civil rights clashes of the 1950s and '60s, when Southern governors touted their (nonexistent) right to invalidate federal laws. His social conservatism harkens back to the '90s, when the gay rights agenda (which Cruz has pledged to combat in DC) was seen lurking around every corner. His fear of international treaties as a gateway to the dissolution of American sovereignty might have fit right in during the Eisenhower era—or in the pages of the Ron Paul newsletters that Storey kept on hand for his conservative pupils to browse. What's different is that Cruz has backup, what DeMint calls a "critical mass" of Republican lawmakers who share the same vision—one that has been straining for decades to break through.
As Cruz entranced the Values Voter crowd with the story of a man and a message that seemed frozen in time, he might as well have been talking about himself, a forward-thinker and a throwback, as much the party's future as he is a brightly burning ember of its past.