Ted Cruz shows his game face to Jimmy Kimmel and his human side to voters

National Correspondent
Yahoo News
Sen. Ted Cruz with supporters in Rockwall, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
Sen. Ted Cruz with supporters in Rockwall, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

SULPHUR SPRINGS, Texas — Sen. Ted Cruz professes to be a man who does not allow himself to be drawn into the seemingly endless drama of Twitter, but there he was, in the wee hours of a Thursday morning in late May, sitting in his darkened bedroom in Houston, typing furiously on his iPhone.

It was after midnight, and Cruz’s wife, Heidi, had woken up to an empty bed. Leaning up, she found her husband sitting in a nearby chair, his face illuminated only by the glow of his phone. “Ted,” she said. “What are you doing? Come to bed.”

The senator made no movement, save for the swipe of a finger on his iPhone screen. “Hold on,” Cruz distractedly told his wife. “I am in a Twitter war with Jimmy Kimmel.”

Unbeknownst to his wife or the staff of his reelection campaign, the Texas senator had fired off a tweet to Kimmel after he caught a clip of the late-night host making fun of him. In a monologue the night before, the left-leaning comic had suggested Cruz’s beloved Houston Rockets had lost the NBA playoffs to the Golden State Warriors because the senator showed up in person at Game 7.

Sharing with viewers a photo Cruz had tweeted of himself courtside, Kimmel had mocked the senator’s attire—“the super-cool T-shirt-over-a-polo look” — and said he strongly resembled a blobfish, a slimy deep-sea specimen that has been described as the ugliest animal on the planet. “The new Rockets mascot!” Kimmel declared.

Unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with Cruz. Recalling the clip a few weeks later, as he sat in his official campaign RV (“the Cruzer”) parked outside a restaurant here where he was to meet with voters, Cruz offered a tight smile when asked if he thought Kimmel’s jabs were funny. “I laughed, sure,” he said, a little unconvincingly. “But I [also] got a little ticked off. I decided instead of getting angry, I would have fun with it.”

Supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz gather in Rockwall, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
Supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz gather in Rockwall, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

That’s the story of how Cruz, a 47-year-old man so decidedly unathletic that he wrote in his 2014 biography of refusing to play sports as a child, found himself sitting in the dark challenging Kimmel, via Twitter, to a public duel of sorts. “All right, big guy,” he wrote. “Let’s settle this man to man: one-on-one hoops.” It would be for charity, but those close to Cruz admitted there was also pride at stake, the senator taking on a prominent comedian who had made him a punch line for years. Who cared that he might potentially embarrass himself on national television?

But Cruz’s after-hours challenge also played into a perhaps more ambitious project the senator has seemingly embraced in recent months. Facing a tougher than expected battle for reelection back home from Beto O’Rourke, a little-known Democratic congressman from El Paso whose easy style on the stump has been likened to Barack Obama’s, the Texas senator, though he strongly denies it, seems to have been doing a little bit of image rehab, trying to convince fellow Republicans and voters back in Texas that he’s more likable than his reputation suggests.

In Washington, he has tried to shed his image as an impertinent conservative bomb thrower, a gadfly to Democrats and Republicans alike. (“If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a fellow Republican, once joked.) Though he has not wavered from his strong conservative views, Cruz has lately tried to carve out a more congenial presence in the Senate — sparking talk of “Ted Cruz 2.0,” as his fellow Texan Sen. John Cornyn, who has butted heads with Cruz in the past, put it to the Dallas Morning News earlier this year.

Cruz has begun working more closely with party leaders like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he once publicly branded a liar. And he has tried to repair frayed relationships with other Republicans, by hosting dinners and a regular pickup basketball game in the Senate gym. (“I am a mediocre player, at best,” Cruz said.)

Perhaps most surprising, he has become one of President Trump’s closest and unlikely allies on Capitol Hill — making peace with a man he repeatedly described as a “pathological liar” during the 2016 campaign and whom he initially refused to endorse because of Trump’s personal attacks on his family.

In the heat of the campaign, Trump circulated Twitter messages attacking Heidi Cruz’s looks and peddled a wild conspiracy theory that Cruz’s dad, Rafael, was involved in the JFK assassination. Trump has never publicly apologized. And it’s worth noting that Cruz, friendly enough with the president to write a glowing Time magazine blurb about him, has repeatedly declined the opportunity to take back his own words, including his description of Trump as “utterly amoral” and a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” “I don’t intend to revisit those comments,” he told the New York Times last month.

A man prays with Cruz after a campaign event in Sulphur Springs, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
A man prays with Cruz after a campaign event in Sulphur Springs, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

To the shock of some of his colleagues, Cruz recently went so far as to try to hammer out legislation to permanently end family separations along the U.S. border with Mexico with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat and ideological adversary who has repeatedly clashed with the Texas lawmaker in the past. Negotiations between the two are still ongoing. “Ted and Dianne working together?” a Democratic senator remarked to Yahoo News. “Has hell frozen over?”

But it’s Cruz’s presence on the campaign trail that seems more different than before. Though the lawmaker disputes that he’s made any changes to his campaign style, arguing that his past reputation was more media caricature than anything, Cruz has a noticeably softer presence compared to when he was barnstorming Iowa, South Carolina and other early primary states in pursuit of the presidency during the 2016 election.

Absent are the dramatic pauses and flourishes in his pitch to voters that often made Cruz sound more like a fire-and-brimstone preacher than a political candidate. On a recent campaign swing through East Texas, his stump speech was riddled with self-deprecating jokes and pop culture references — including lines from “The Simpsons” and “The Princess Bride,” his favorite movie, which he often quoted during his White House run. And while he went after O’Rourke, assailing him as a socialist who would lead Texas and the rest of the country off a cliff if elected, his attacks were delivered more often with a smile than a sneer.

Speaking to voters here in a restaurant where the walls were crammed with old photos of local cowboys in what used to be a dairy capital of Texas, Cruz mocked the media attention O’Rourke has been getting, articles profiling his attempt to turn bright-red Texas blue. “He gets millions in free media,” the senator said. “Their favorite adjective for him is ‘Kennedy-esque,’ usually with his hair blowing in the wind.”

Cruz paused and lifted his hand in the air and dramatically dipped it forward and then back as if he were brushing back a wave of floppy hair. His audience, a mix of old and young supporters, erupted in laughter and applause. The senator beamed.

Is Cruz trying to get people to like him by showing a lighter side? In an interview, the senator repeatedly insisted he’s not doing anything different. “This is who I am. This has always been who I am,” he insisted, though he allowed that maybe he was more of a “happy warrior” on the campaign trail these days.

Cruz with a supporter in Jefferson, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
Cruz with a supporter in Jefferson, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

If it’s true, it’s by choice. Polls in recent weeks have shown a tighter than expected race — where, in theory, Cruz should be walking an easy path to reelection. No Democrat has won a statewide election in Texas since 1994, one of the party’s longest losing streaks in the nation.

But O’Rourke is hoping to break the spell — not just by appealing to Democrats and moderate Republicans, but by turning out people who don’t typically vote. And in a state that is rapidly diversifying, not just in the rise of Latino voters but also an influx of voters from more liberal states like California, that has caused concern among Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott. He has raised tens of millions of dollars over the last year to preserve his own seat, which is considered safe, but to build a get-out-the-vote operation that can assist other Republicans up and down the ballot as they try to maintain a GOP majority in Texas. That includes Cruz, who has been outpaced in fundraising by O’Rourke. Since entering the race in April 2017, O’Rourke has raised just over $23 million compared to Cruz’s $13 million.

Polls suggest the race is still Cruz’s to lose — though it’s closer than many would expect in a conservative state. A CBS News/You Gov survey released last month found Cruz with an 8-point lead over O’Rourke — 44 percent to 36 percent, with 13 percent still undecided.

Asked why the race is competitive, Cruz responded that it was largely due to anger over Trump. “The dynamic here in Texas is similar to what’s happening nationally, which is that the extreme left is energized. They are angry. They hate the president. That energy and anger can be a powerful political motivator … and will manifest in very, very high Democratic turnout in November,” he said. “The good news in Texas is there’s still a lot more conservatives than liberals.”

But Cruz doesn’t conceal his concern. At every campaign stop, he warns supporters against complacency, arguing the election will be decided by turnout. “People are demoralized, they are unhappy, one thing is happening that they don’t like and so they stay home,” he told supporters in Longview. “It doesn’t take that many common-sense Texans to stay home to flip the state.”

Cruz in Rockwall, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
Cruz in Rockwall, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

While Cruz is right that Trump will be a major factor in Texas — a state that has been caught up in the intense debate over immigration and where farmers and manufacturers have been hit hard by the president’s trade war with China and threats to throw out NAFTA — the senator’s ability to turn out Republican voters will likely depend heavily on how they feel about him too. And that’s where it gets tricky.

Most polls show more voters approve than disapprove of how Cruz has done his job, but they don’t necessarily like him. A Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll released last month found 41 percent of voters said they have a favorable impression of him, while 42 percent said they have an unfavorable one. On the other side of the ballot, 37 percent said they have favorable impressions of O’Rourke, while 24 percent said they have an unfavorable opinion — but 40 percent of voters said they still didn’t know enough about the El Paso congressman to form an opinion.

According to the Tribune poll, only 17 percent said they remained neutral to Cruz. It isn’t just Democrats whom he has a problem with. Polls suggest he is also struggling among self-described independents, moderate Republicans and female voters — voting blocs that O’Rourke is working hard to turn out for him and could prove pivotal in a race that is expected to be the most bitterly fought and expensive in the country.

Among other things, the congressman has attacked Cruz for his fiercely anti-immigration views, including his support for a border wall and his opposition to protections for “Dreamers,” people who immigrated illegally to the U.S. as children. Cruz has decried the practice as “amnesty.” The recent crisis on the border has only further cemented immigration as a major issue in the race. In a widely covered protest along the border, O’Rourke called the separations “torture” and un-American.

Initially, Cruz had defended the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their illegal immigrant parents when they were detained on the border — saying the U.S. was merely enforcing federal law, while calling the images “heartbreaking.” He said parents breaking the law shouldn’t expect their kids to accompany them to jail, no matter the crime. “So when you see reporters, when you see Democrats saying, ‘Don’t separate kids from their parent,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘Don’t arrest illegal aliens,’” Cruz told KERA, a Dallas public radio station on June 11.

But after a week of controversy and a visit to a border detention facility, Cruz reversed himself, introducing legislation that would keep immigrant families together but double the number judges along the border (bringing the total to 750) to speed up asylum requests.

Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News
Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News

While the bill was criticized by Democrats on the grounds that its 14-day limit on adjudicating asylum pleas was too short it was received well by Republicans in the Senate, who have long been divided over the issue of immigration and were desperate to solve the escalating political crisis. But Trump shot down Cruz’s bill in a rambling speech in which he called the proposal “crazy” and exaggerated what exactly it would do. He suggested the Texas senator had proposed hiring “five or six thousand more judges.”

“Thousands and thousands of judges they want to hire. Who are these people?” Trump declared. “We don’t want judges. We want security on the border.”

While Trump ultimately signed an executive order ending his administration’s practice of separating families, Senate Republicans have sought to pass a narrow measure that would effectively put that policy into permanent law — which is what Cruz and Feinstein have been negotiating.

In an interview, Cruz sidestepped questions about Trump’s criticism of his bill or working with a president that often acts more like a frenemy than an ally. Speaking to voters throughout his tour of East Texas, he talked up his proposal on judges and his efforts to bring consensus on the issue, though he made no mention of Trump’s opposition or his ongoing negotiations with Feinstein on a permanent solution to family detentions.

It was not hard to see why. Voters in attendance, while friendly to Cruz, hammered him on issues of border security. They demanded to know why construction on Trump’s border wall had yet to begin. And several asked why the U.S. was spending money to house immigrant children while there is an epidemic of homelessness among military veterans. “Why can’t we just throw them back over?” a woman in Sulphur Springs said, referring to immigrant families who have crossed the border illegally.

Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News
Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News

Cruz answered by saying that the best way to end the crisis was to deter illegal immigration. Echoing Trump administration talking points, he argued that many of the kids being brought to the border were not in the custody of their parents, but under the control of human traffickers who were abusing them. “No one who cares about compassion, who cares about humanity, should want to see kids in the custody of human traffickers,” Cruz said.  “Now how do you stop that? The way you stop illegal immigration is you enforce the law. You send them back home. You don’t let them stay.”

He attacked O’Rourke for his more liberal views on immigration, accusing his opponent of favoring open borders and supporting the abolition of the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency, known as ICE. (Under pressure from his own base, O’Rourke said last month he is open to the idea of abolishing the agency but later dialed it back to suggest he would “abolish the practices” of ICE.) Cruz called it “a radical proposition” and seemed to throw the congressman’s words back at him. “That may be popular with Democratic voters and radical activists,” he said of O’Rourke’s views. “But that’s not Texas, that’s not America, that’s not what we believe.”

Cruz’s efforts to rehabilitate his image aren’t aimed at winning over Democrats, but squarely at Republicans, especially Texas Republicans. Many Republicans in the state were angered by Cruz’s early years in the Senate, when he seemed to be focused less on Texas and more on his ambitions for higher national office.

Elected to the Senate in 2012 as part of a wave of tea party conservatives, Cruz quickly thrilled his supporters by taking on President Barack Obama. He was the driving force behind the 2013 government shutdown aimed at trying to undo funding for Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Cruz in Talco, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
Cruz in Talco, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

During a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor, Cruz famously read the Dr. Seuss classic, “Green Eggs and Ham” — a move that electrified tea party supporters who applauded his efforts to rein in government spending. But the 16-day shutdown didn’t undo Obamacare, and the senators behind it were largely blamed for grandstanding — even by other Republicans, who groused that Cruz wasn’t doing it for principle.

“It wasn’t about the shutdown. It wasn’t about the Affordable Care Act. It was about launching Ted Cruz,” Tom Coburn, a pork-busting conservative who represented Oklahoma in the Senate at the time, later told the Washington Post.

By then, Cruz was already being mentioned as a possible presidential contender, speculation fueled by his visits to early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. At the same time, he infuriated other Republicans by helping raise money for a political action committee trying to unseat incumbent GOP senators. When he finally announced his White House campaign in early 2015, some Republicans back in Texas, even those friendly to Cruz, complained that he had used the job as a stepping stone.

Cornyn, who had publicly tangled with Cruz over his legislative tactics, opted to stay neutral in the Republican primary instead of backing his fellow Texan. In an interview with KERA in 2016 at the height of Cruz’s battle with Trump for the GOP nomination, Cornyn said he and Cruz simply had a different approach to governing. “Clearly, he didn’t come here to remain in the Senate. He came here to run for president. I think that perhaps explains the difference in tactics,” he said.

Two years later, Cruz no longer speaks of running for president, but he has pointedly refused to say he won’t, telling Texas Monthly earlier this year that “life is long.” Still, on the campaign trail, he politely brushes off voters who ask him during meet-and-greets if he would run again someday, telling one woman that he is solely focused on the election at hand.

Cruz poses with supporters in Rockwall, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
Cruz poses with supporters in Rockwall, Texas. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

But that hasn’t kept O’Rourke from trying to use Cruz’s lingering ambitions against him, depicting him as an out-of-touch lawmaker who is more interested in the White House than in Texas. Since launching his campaign last year, the congressman made a point of visiting all 254 counties in Texas — a feat that Cruz has not done. “He’s barnstormed every county in Iowa though,” O’Rourke told supporters during a rally outside Arlington, Texas, earlier this month.

And some Republicans even wondered if Cruz wasn’t thinking bigger last month when he met Kimmel on the basketball court at Texas Southern University in Houston. After weeks of negotiations and rule making that rivaled the NBA, the Texas senator and late-night host battled it out in what Kimmel had branded the “Blobfish Basketball Classic.”

It was two hours of what Cruz later described as the “worst basketball anyone has ever seen” — a pair of out-of-shape men in their late 40s with little athletic ability but an affinity for the spotlight, wheezing and sweating as they tried to one-up each other with baskets and trash-talk. “Who’s harder to defend?” Kimmel asked at one point. “Me or Trump?”

On the sidelines, Cruz’s advisers cheered. Before the game began, Jeff Roe, his longtime political adviser, had declared him the winner no matter the results, saying it allowed people to see Cruz “in a new light. Funny, engaging, self-depreciating.”

But in fact, Cruz actually won, 11-9. (The men had originally planned to play to 15, but agreed “in the spirit of bipartisanship,” as Kimmel put it, to cut the match short after they each nearly collapsed from exhaustion.)

Cruz got a trophy — and a talking point. On his tour through East Texas, the game was the talk of every stop — mentioned by amused voters who questioned if his dribble game was really that bad and by Cruz himself as he relished a win over a liberal Hollywood foe. With a few months left to go in a campaign for his political future, Cruz was looking for any victory he could find.

“For the next 50 years, Hollywood liberals are going to give Jimmy grief, and go, ‘How on earth could you lose to Ted Cruz?’” the senator told voters at a stop in Longview. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Cruz and Kimmel face off in the “Blobfish Basketball Classic.” (Photo: Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images)
Cruz and Kimmel face off in the “Blobfish Basketball Classic.” (Photo: Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images)

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