Who is he? Ted Cruz, 44, junior US Senator from Texas
Do you know him? If you're a resident of the Lone Star State, or you pay attention to politics, or you've had any interest in the white-shirted clusterfuck that is the Republican primary, then yes. Cruz, with his cartoon-villain face and general air of someone who has just smelled something very bad, has been loud and proud in opposing everything President Barack Obama and the Democrats have tried to do since he took office, highlighted by that time he shut down the entire government just so he could talk about how much he hates Obamacare.
Is he running? Oh, you betcha. One important thing to understand about Cruz is that he's an overachiever: he went to Princeton and Harvard Law, then won one of the bigger upsets of the 2012 cycle when he took the Texas Senate seat vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchinson. So naturally, he was the first Republican officially declare his candidacy for the 2016 nomination. And naturally, he made that declaration at Liberty University—you know, the fundamentalist Bible college founded by Pastor Jerry Falwell, who once blamed 9/11 on gays, abortion, and feminists. Students at Liberty were required to attend his speech, but whatever: head start!
Why does it matter? Cruz won his Senate seat on the back of the Tea Party, and his presidential run makes him one of the only Tea Party upstarts staging a White House bid in 2016. Running far, far, far from the right, Cruz offers ultra-conservatives of the Religious Right persuasion a candidate who is actually a fairly serious political person: he's a highly educated sitting senator, which means that, compared with Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, not to mention former car-crashes like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, Cruz is a hell of a package.
Cruz's campaign could serve as a sort of mild referendum on the Tea Party, which hasn't exactly been performing well since 2012. If Cruz can make it out of the madcap, 17-candidate-deep preliminaries and into the final three or four — probably a harder task than it sounds, considering the way Trump's rampage has equalized every other candidate—it could be a sign that there's still a major appetite for the Tea Party's ultraconservative brand of outsider politics.
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Who wants him? Well, the Tea Party, for one. But there's an interesting counter-narrative brewing: namely, that because of Ted Cruz's appeal to the far right, he could actually end up the Establishment Candidate—sort of. The American Spectator argued this week that the financially conservative and small-government types who make up the GOP Elite might end up turning to Cruz as the sane-and-qualified alternative to the mutually-assured destruction that is the Donald Trump campaign.
This theory essentially hinges on the belief that Jeb Bush has already punched himself out, and that Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, previously assumed to be the candidates most likely to pull off this feat, won't be able to wake up their so-far narcoleptic campaigns. And while it's a little scary to think of the Senate's loudest obstructionist becoming the standard-bearer of the entire party, the idea isn't without some credibility.
Just look at the polls. In a Fox News survey taken last week, Cruz hit the 10-point mark for the first time since May. He and pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson seem to be the main beneficiaries of Trump's kavorka, thanks in part to their respectable performances in the first Republican presidential debate. Even Al Hunt, Bloomberg's veteran political columnist, thinks Cruz is the best-equipped candidate to go the distance against the Bush and Trump, thanks to his political cunning and successful fundraising—and that's not exactly coming from Breitbart.
Who opposes him? A lot of Republicans legitimately hate the dude. Cruz pissed off many members of his own party when he led his standoff to shut down the government, and he has blatantly and aggressively attacked the Republican leadership, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in speeches on the Senate floor. Senators don't really call each other out, and they definitely don't call out the bosses on their own side, but Cruz has made a point of doing that, and it's why everyone has been saying he's the most unpopular dude in Congress, dating back to 2013, when he hadn't even been there for a year.
So, let's say that Cruz isn't exactly beloved by his fellow politicians. There's a whole swath of the voting party that doesn't love him, either. Cruz is still an ultra-conservative religious firebrand, and the Wall Street Journal's utter revulsion towards him is a good example of the struggles he'll always have with the GOP establishment.
When's his moment? March 1. That's Super Tuesday, when Republicans will compete in ten different contests, many of which are located in the South. The Cruz campaign has been focusing on this date; while the other candidates have basically camped out in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, the Cruz campaign has been driving around the South, focusing on voters who could decide the nomination on Super Tuesday.
Of course, one of the most interesting things about the Republican campaign is that, with the giant ego that is Donald Trump looming hysterically over the field, it feels like the race could change at any moment. Will Trump unleash more crazy on his fellow candidates? Yep! Will he bait one of them into saying something stupid? Probably! But Cruz has realized that, as with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the best way to handle Trump is not to look at him—that way, he won't look at you.
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, and the other 97 Republican candidates all have the same problem. And it's looking increasingly likely that Cruz might have as good a plan for handling this ultra-marathon as any of his fellow runners.