HOUSTON-Ted Cruz wasn't born until 1970. But his journey to becoming a candidate for the U.S. Senate began in 1957.
That's the year his then 18-year-old father, Rafael, fled Cuba. He had spent the previous four years fighting against the reign of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Rafael endured imprisonment and torture that left him without his front teeth.
Arriving in Austin, Texas, Rafael couldn't speak English and carried only $100 sewn into his underwear. But he found a job washing dishes seven days a week, earning 50 cents an hour. He used the money to help pay for his education in mathematics at the University of Texas and eventually started his own business.
Now, 55 years later, his son, Ted, is trying to join Marco Rubio in Washington as a Hispanic Republican senator. "When I was a kid, my dad used to say to me, 'When we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to. If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?' There is no question that better explains why I am running for the Senate."
The Texas Republican primary to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is a crowded field: Ten candidates have filed and four are serious contenders. That's not surprising since the winner of the May 29 GOP primary will likely win the seat: It has been 18 years since a Democrat won a statewide office in Texas.
Cruz, consistently running second in the polls behind current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, has never run for elected office before. But he has garnered a long list of endorsements from national conservative leaders including James Dobson and Tea Party Sens. Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Pat Toomey. National organizations such as FreedomWorks have spent nearly $1.7 million in independent expenditures either to promote Cruz or attack his Republican rivals. (WORLD repeatedly tried to obtain an interview with Dewhurst, but multiple attempts through two prominent individuals in or close to the Dewhurst campaign did not lead to one.)
Supporters point to the conservative credentials Cruz displayed as solicitor general of Texas. From 2003 to 2008 Cruz authored 70 Supreme Court briefs and argued before the Supreme Court nine times. He backed the right to display the Ten Commandments on state capitol grounds and defended the Pledge of Allegiance after a federal appeals court struck it down for containing the words "under God."
But the national attention and money being devoted to Cruz-in a state that will likely remain Republican no matter who wins the primary-also is due to the desire among conservatives to attract more Hispanic voters.
George W. Bush received between 37 and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in winning the 2004 presidential election. But John McCain barely earned 31 percent four years later. Polls for this year's election show this downward trend could continue: a Fox News survey in March revealed that just 14 percent of Hispanic voters would support Mitt Romney against Barack Obama.
That's an ominous sign with the Hispanic population, now at 50 million, making up 16 percent of the U.S. population. The fastest growing segment of the electorate, the Hispanic population jumped by at least 50 percent over the last decade in 37 states. "Today I do not believe that any Republican candidate ... can win the White House without Hispanic support," said Alberto Gonzales, who served as the nation's first Hispanic U.S. attorney general under the Bush administration, during a March speech in Wisconsin.
Right now Texas helps Republicans counter the advantage Democrats enjoy in California. But if Republicans get 31 percent or less of the Hispanic vote going forward, then even Republican strongholds like Texas could be at risk as the Hispanic population grows. And if Texas, and its significant electoral votes, turns Democratic, then Republicans may face an insurmountable hurdle when it comes to winning the White House.
"Most Republicans are lousy at reaching out to Hispanics," Cruz said. "We hang up a piñata and throw a Cinco de Mayo party. We are patronizing and condescending, and it doesn't work." Cruz believes that the Hispanic community is profoundly conservative. Most of its members believe in faith, family, and patriotism. Their core vales of hard work and independence seem ideally suited to a Republican philosophy instead of a party promoting a big government entitlement mindset, Cruz argues.
"When is the last time you saw a Hispanic panhandler," Cruz asks. "They work their fingers to the bone to provide for their children. There is no value that resonates more within the Hispanic community than [that] people who start out with nothing can achieve their American dreams."
Cruz grew up in a Houston-area Baptist church, making a profession of faith in Christ when he was eight years old. Today his father pastors a Spanish language church near Dallas. His father has translated dozens of Christian books into Spanish, including the Bible. During long drives Cruz likes to listen to the voice of his father reading the New Testament on CD.
There is another written document that has captured Cruz's passion: the U.S. Constitution. At a recent luncheon for the Greater Houston Pachyderm Club about 40 people prayed and recited two pledges: one to the U.S. flag and the other, of course, to the Texas state flag. They met candidates vying for education boards and district courts while enjoying a meal of salad, chicken, and cheesecake. That's all typical fare for a Texas political gathering during election season.
But then Ted Cruz stood up, grabbed the microphone, stepped in front of the lectern, and started talking about the Greek origins of the word politics. The Pachyderm members may not have realized it yet, but they were about to get a lesson on politics delivered without notes.
Cruz, 41, fell in love with the Constitution as a teenager with a devotion rarely found among adults. As a 13-year-old high school freshman, he joined a program sponsored by the Free Enterprise Institute that focused on the principles of liberty and the Constitution. He learned about the "pillars of economic wisdom" by reading Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek among others. Then he would write 20-minute speeches. For each of his four years in high school, Cruz was a citywide speech contest winner. He delivered roughly 80 speeches to civic clubs around the state.
Spending his teenage years speaking about economics and government to business and community leaders didn't satisfy Cruz's political fixation. He joined a group that spent hundreds of hours debating and memorizing the Constitution. The group toured the state, writing out the entire Constitution from memory on easels as a form of entertainment and inspiration during business luncheons.
"I don't really ever remember a time I wasn't interested in politics," Cruz said. "There is a passion that comes from having seen liberty stripped away, and I was raised with that passion from infancy. Having principled men and women in office is how you protect yourself from tyranny."
Cruz carried his constitutional fervor to Princeton where he won a national debate championship award his senior year and wrote his thesis on the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. Cruz next earned a Harvard law degree, where he was a founding editor of the Latino Law Review. In 1996, he began clerking for then Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (a Rehnquist bobblehead doll sits in Cruz's current office at a Houston law firm).
Today he tells Texas audiences that he wants to return to Washington as a U.S. senator because the Constitution is under assault by a president Cruz calls the most radical the county has ever seen.
Cruz admits that Obama's 2008 agenda of hope and change appealed to young people and Hispanics. But Cruz, like other Republicans, sees an opening in the 2012 fight over Hispanic voters. After Obama the candidate promised immigration reform, Obama the president ignored the issue. "The president delivered a fat goose egg," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Now in campaign mode, Obama is promising to tackle immigration reform in the first year of a second term.
Obama's administration angered many Hispanics by deporting about 1.06 million illegal immigrants as of last September. That is about 30 percent more than the deportations under the Bush administration. Obama announced last fall an effort to ease deportation rules, but not before his approval rating among Hispanic voters dropped more than 10 percentage points to under 50 percent in 2011.
Nelson Reyes, 47, came to Florida from Puerto Rico when he was two months old. He now lives outside of Houston where he is trying to start a small business. Most of his relatives in Florida are Democrats, but he says "they don't know which way to go" for this presidential election. "A lot of people are saying, 'Obama promised so much but delivered so little,'" said Reyes, who came to hear Cruz speak and is frustrated with all the regulatory hurdles he faces in his new business. "The left can't seem to figure out that low taxes and low regulation work."
An unemployment rate stuck at 11 percent among Hispanics also threatens Obama's reelection. That's three percentage points above the national average. The Republican Party in April unveiled a Hispanic outreach effort in six battleground states that will focus on the economy, government spending, and the national debt. "We are going to engage Hispanics and Latinos like we never have before," pledged RNC Chairman Priebus. The GOP will dispatch field operatives aiming to capture 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Democrats still enjoy a sizeable lead among Hispanic registered voters. But disappointment over high unemployment and unfulfilled promises is taking its toll.
Since 2008 the share of Hispanic registered voters who say the Democratic Party has more concern for Hispanics has declined 10 percentage points from 55 percent to 45 percent. Meanwhile the share of Hispanic registered voters who say the Republican Party has more concern for Hispanics doubled from 6 percent to 12 percent, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center. Another Pew study also showed that immigrants become more Republican the longer they have been in the country.
Currently nine Hispanic Republicans serve in the U.S. Congress, compared with 22 Democrats. But the six Hispanics elected to Congress in 2010 were all Republicans as were the two Hispanic governors elected in 2010: Nevada's Brian Sandoval and New Mexico's Susana Martinez. The National Republican Congressional Committee has identified more than two dozen non-incumbent Hispanics running as Republicans for congressional office this fall (though some are running for the same seat).
While the Republican Party focuses on joblessness among Hispanics, other Republicans are working to soften the party's immigration image. "We must admit that there are those among us who have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable," Sen. Rubio, a Cuban-American, said at an event earlier this year in Miami. "We must admit, myself included, that sometimes we've been too slow in condemning that language for what it is."
Included among Obama's failed promises was the passage of the DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship for children brought here illegally by their parents if they go to college or serve in the military. The bill remains highly popular among Hispanics but is opposed by most Republicans as a form of amnesty.
Rubio is preparing to introduce his own version of the DREAM Act. It would give legal status but not citizenship to college-bound students brought here illegally by their parents. They would be eligible for a nonimmigrant visa that would allow them to go to college. After graduation they could remain in the country legally while working, and they could apply for residency and ultimately citizenship like other visa holders.
Rubio argues that it is unrealistic to expect the government to deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. To him the key question is "how can we deal with this issue in a way that both honors our legacy as a nation of immigrants but also honors our legacy as a nation of laws?" Romney refused to state on April 23 whether he supports Rubio's version of the DREAM Act. "It has many features to commend it, but it's something that we're studying," he said.
Romney said he would veto the Democratic version of the DREAM Act and stated throughout the primary season that his first priority is border security. But he admitted during an April fundraiser that if Republicans can't attract more Hispanic voters it "spells doom for us."
A growing number of supporters are suggesting that one way Romney can overcome the immigration issue is by selecting a Hispanic as his running mate. Nearly one third of Hispanic voters in a recent poll said they would consider voting for a Republican candidate for president if the running mate was Hispanic.
Feeding speculation that he might be the pick, Rubio joined Romney on the campaign trial for the first time on April 23 in Aston, Pa. Like Cruz often does in Houston, Rubio discussed his family's modest upbringing. He then used that narrative to attack Obama's push for wealth redistribution: "I don't ever remember my parents saying to me, 'You know what, if only we took something away from them and they gave it to us, things would be better.'"
Democrats will be reluctant to stop using the immigration issue as a weapon to score political points. On April 19, several House Democrats, backed by a handful of illegal immigrants, held a press conference just steps from the U.S. Capitol. They took turns bashing Republicans' stance on immigration. Trying to convince Hispanics that their identity should be tied to the Democratic Party, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., declared that "as long as Republican candidates cling to radical anti-immigrant ideology they will lose another generation of Hispanic voters." Democrats trying to keep control of the Senate likely will fan the flames of immigration conflict this fall by pushing for a vote on some controversial immigration bill before November.
The immigration debate will get more scrutiny this summer when the Supreme Court rules on the Obama administration's challenge to an Arizona immigration law that gives state police expanded authority to challenge the immigration status of individuals they stop. Oral arguments conducted on April 25 suggested that justices are skeptical of the federal government's claims against the Arizona law (see "High opinion").
Back in Houston, Cruz continues to work 18-hour days so he can join the debate in Washington.
Asked why he is going for a coveted U.S. Senate seat in his first bid for elected office, Cruz said, "If you want to dramatically shrink the size and power of the federal government and address the debt, the Senate is the battlefield. Today there are six or seven strong free market conservatives in the Senate. I think what is absolutely critical is that we grow those numbers."
What stands out about Cruz is not so much his Cuban heritage but his love of America. A Pew Hispanic Center survey showed that while just 8 percent of immigrant Hispanics describe themselves as "American" (as opposed to "Hispanic/Latino" or their country of origin), 35 percent of second generation and 48 percent of third generation Hispanics describe themselves as Americans.
The fact that Cruz identifies himself more with his family's adopted country than with Cuba is clearly reflected in the American history relics that decorate his Houston office. Small statues of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan, posing with a cowboy hat and saddle, sit on a windowsill. ("I will go to my grave with Ronald Reagan defining what it means to be president of the United States," Cruz says.)
A replica of a Texas flag that flew over the Alamo and a framed letter that Lt. Col. William Barret Travis wrote from the besieged Alamo hang on the wall. Cruz likes to quote from the letter at Tea Party rallies: "I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country."
There is even a framed "chad" from the Florida presidential recount in 2000. (Cruz met his wife while they both worked on the Bush 2000 election.) Cruz worked for the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission under Bush. But, as Texas solicitor general, Cruz went against his former boss during a case in which the Bush administration tried to force Texas to submit to an international court's ruling.
Cruz, who opposes amnesty and wants to triple the number of U.S. border control agents, ended his long day by driving an hour outside of Houston to address about 150 people inside Timber Lakes Baptist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. Flanked by an American flag and a Texas flag with two wooden crosses on the wall behind him, Cruz fired up the crowd by joking that politicians disprove the biology lesson that invertebrates can't walk upright.
"It took Jimmy Carter to give us Ronald Reagan," he said, turning serious. "And I am convinced the most long-lasting legacy of Barack Obama is going to be a new generation of the Republican Party standing up and fighting for liberty."