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Ted Cruz's meteoric rise, explained

Xinhua/Yin Bogu via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Yes, Donald Trump lost the Iowa caucuses. But the GOP establishment shouldn't cheer yet — because someone they hate just as much emerged triumphant.

Ted Cruz has only held elected office for three years. But in that short time, he's had quite an impact. He's helped shut down the federal government. He's wooed power brokers on the religious right. And he's made a remarkable number of enemies in the capital.

Now, this Canadian-born, Cuban-American senator from Texas — who was unknown nationally as recently as May 2012 — has won the first Republican presidential nomination contest.

It's not yet clear whether Cruz can duplicate his Iowa success in other states. Other recent GOP candidates who have relied on evangelical support, as Cruz did, have stumbled in other regions of the country. And the party elites who so loathe him will fight hard to impede his rise.

But Cruz is now unmistakably a top contender in the Republican presidential contest. So it's worth getting up to speed on his background — and on what his meteoric rise would mean for the party.

Cruz rose from an obscure childhood to top Republican elite circles

Rafael Edward Cruz was born on December 22, 1970, in Calgary, Alberta, to an American mother and a Cuban émigré father (making him, by scholarly consensus, an American citizen by birth). Around his fourth birthday, his parents split up — but they got back together a few months later after his father Rafael converted to Christianity and decided to change his life. His mother, Eleanor, also became born-again, and the family moved to Houston, Texas, where Cruz spent the rest of his youth.

By Cruz's account in his autobiography A Time for Truth, he was a unpopular child, "too competitive and cocky about academics," and "lousy at sports." For his first 13 years he went by "Felito" (a shortened diminutive of his first name, Rafael). But, as Cruz tells it, "other young children were quite happy to point out" that his name rhymed "with every major corn chip on the market." Eventually, he decided to go by "Ted" — a nickname he's used ever since.

Around 10th grade, Cruz realized he was interested in law and politics — and, as he tells it, he became a staunch free market conservative. He joined a group called the Constitutional Corroborators, where he "spent hundreds of hours" studying the Constitution and other founding American documents, and learned economics from a group now called the Free Enterprise Institute. These experiences, Cruz wrote, "combined with my father’s life experiences fleeing oppression and seeking freedom, helped me realize where my passion lay."

Cruz's parents drifted apart, eventually divorcing, and he got into trouble in high school. But he won admission to Princeton. He excelled as a debater, and he and his partner were named the top debate team in the country one year. And he wrote his senior thesis on how the Ninth and 10th Amendments to the Constitution restrict federal power, before applying to law school.

Once he was ensconced at Harvard Law in fall 1992, Cruz was extremely purposeful and strategic. As he narrates in his book, he worked as a research assistant for three well-connected professors in hopes of getting good recommendations from them that he could parlay into top clerkships. And indeed, he ended up clerking for conservative appellate court justice J. Michael Luttig one summer — and then going all the way to the top, to clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Cruz went from the Bush administration to Texas to the Tea Party

After law school graduation, Cruz worked for a small conservative constitutional law firm for a short time. But he was eager to get into politics, and soon left to join George W. Bush's presidential campaign, working on the domestic policy team. While there, he met campaign staffer Heidi Nelson, whom he'd quickly begin dating and would soon marry, and would be in the midst of the action when the Bush legal team dealt with the Florida recount.

But, in his own telling, he didn't make many other friends there. "I was far too cocky for my own good, and that sometimes caused me to overstep the bounds of my appointed role," Cruz wrote. "As a consequence, I burned a fair number of bridges on the Bush campaign." He pined for a White House job, and was bitterly disappointed when he failed to get it. (In retrospect, though, Cruz writes that he was glad to have been somewhat insulated from the controversies of the Bush administration — and that if he had gotten that White House job, he doesn't think he'd be in the Senate today.)

After briefly holding short, junior posts at the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission, Cruz was, surprisingly enough, offered the post of solicitor general of Texas by the state's newly elected general, Greg Abbott (who is now the state's governor). He decided to take the post, which entailed representing Texas before the Supreme Court, and would hold it for five years. While there, he successfully defended Texas's right to execute a Mexican national, as Dylan Matthews has written, and staked out conservative positions on several other issues too.

Cruz soon sought an electoral career in his own right, beginning a campaign for attorney general of Texas in 2009, in which he managed to raise more than $1 million even though there were four better-known candidates in the race (he also ran afoul of Bush adviser Karl Rove). Yet the sitting attorney general, whom he expected to seek higher office, ended up staying put, so Cruz decided to end his campaign, tabling his ambitions.

But not for long. When it became clear that a US Senate seat would open up in 2012, Cruz began another long-shot campaign against the state's well-known, extremely wealthy lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst. And after deciding to campaign as a foe of the Republican establishment, and wooing the Tea Party right, Cruz won a shocking upset victory in the primary runoff — and easily won the seat that fall.

In Washington, Cruz distinguished himself as an implacable foe of the Obama administration — and the Republican Party

When ambitious new senators get to Washington, they're generally advised to keep their heads down and make friends with their more senior colleagues in their party. That's the path both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama followed.

Ted Cruz followed a very different path. He quickly made a name for himself with his blatant defiance of his party elders — most notably during the federal government shutdown of 2013, which he helped cause. Cruz demanded that his colleagues refuse to fund the government unless Obamacare was defunded, hoping to force the president to cave and agree to tear down his biggest legislative achievement. He campaigned around the country and eventually convinced enough Republicans in the House to go along with his plan — but when Obama didn't blink and Republicans were blamed for the shutdown, Cruz was widely blamed for leading his party into a disaster.

Even beyond the brief shutdown, Cruz became known for constantly trashing his Republican colleagues — to their faces and in the press — for insufficient dedication to conservative principles, and for failing to resist President Obama enough. And he seemed to have a particular genius for inventing ways to position himself as more conservative than anyone else in his party — a strategy that, it's now clear, was aimed at positioning himself for a 2016 presidential bid.

Accordingly, Washington Republicans came to loathe him. But Cruz had tapped into a preexisting, genuine belief among GOP voters that their party had let them down. And he's capitalized on this — and his years spent carefully taking the pulse of the conservative and evangelical GOP base — to propel him to the top tier of presidential primary contenders, and now to victory in the Iowa caucuses.