It's hardly unusual for an incumbent politician to kick off a re-election campaign by producing a television ad recalling a past crisis when he provided both personal comfort and—even more importantly—public resources to his constituents in their moment of need. But when that politician is better known for taking symbolic stands on the floor of Congress than for working pragmatically with others to deliver material benefits to his home state, even a fairly ordinary 30-second spot seems like a window into a larger personal reinvention.
The politician in question is Texas senator Ted Cruz, who built a national reputation as a Tea Party-aligned conservative purist during the second term of the Obama presidency before running for president himself in 2016. Earlier this month, Cruz, now seeking a second term in the Senate, released his first positive campaign ad of the year, which emphasized his role in securing federal funds on behalf of the victims of Hurricane Harvey and featured video clips of the senator—not normally known as a touchy-feely type—embracing and holding the hands of disaster-afflicted citizens. The Cruz portrayed in the ad is indeed a fighter, but for the immediate interests of fellow Texans rather than for timeless ideological principles.
Cruz appears to have good reason to recast his public persona. Unlike other candidates like Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, who returned home with their popularity intact after losing the 2016 nomination race, the elevated visibility that Cruz received by running for president damaged his reputation among Texas voters. According to University of Texas surveys, the proportion of state residents holding a favorable impression of Cruz peaked at 46 percent (compared to 34 percent reporting an unfavorable impression) in June 2014; by the end of his presidential candidacy two years later, Cruz's favorability rating had sunk to just 31 percent (versus 48 percent unfavorable).
Cruz seems to have enjoyed a bit of a rebound since then; the latest UT survey, from June 2018, gives him a 41 percent favorable rating and a 42 percent unfavorable rating. But that showing still places him in a potentially vulnerable position as he seeks re-election, even as a Republican incumbent in a Republican state. Indeed, multiple recent polls—including a survey released this afternoon by NBC News—have found Cruz with just a single-digit lead over his Democratic challenger, El Paso congressman Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, who is running an energetic and well-funded, if at times amateurish, campaign. Cruz is still clearly favored to win, but he can't simply coast to a second term—and even a narrow victory would represent an undeniable sign of political weakness, given the massive head start bestowed on any Republican by the strong partisan lean of the Texas electorate.
Buzzfeed's recent profile of O'Rourke revealed that the Democrat's campaign "proudly employs no pollsters or traditional consultants," which seems like a very odd thing to be proud of. Cruz, presumably, has not adopted such a policy. Indeed, the visible change in his public behavior since returning to the Senate from the presidential campaign trail two years ago suggests a deliberate shift in strategy informed by direct evidence of declining popularity back in his home state. Once best known for delivering floor speeches blasting the Republican leadership as sellouts to conservatism and for leading the right wing of his party into procedural confrontations on behalf of ideological causes, Cruz has been a fairly quiet senator for a while now. In some ways, the Cruz of the new TV spot, bringing home the federal bacon to Texas with a hug and a smile, is just the latest version of a personal reinvention that began even before O'Rourke emerged as a viable challenger.
Such a change of course may only confirm the suspicions of critics—like many of his eye-rolling Senate colleagues—who found Cruz's previous persona as a tireless defender of sacred principles to be merely the product of transparently insincere and self-serving calculation. But all politicians must change with the times or risk defeat. Lindsey Graham was once one of the fellow senators most frequently infuriated by Cruz's behavior, calling him "at his core . . . an opportunist" among many other pejoratives. Of course, Graham also trashed Donald Trump in the press for months, but has more recently become one of the president's golf partners. In politics, opportunism is less an occupational hazard than a virtual inevitability.
Cruz has ultimately found himself in the same place as many other Republicans, struggling to adapt to the massive changes that have occurred since Obama gave way to Trump—both within the Republican Party and in the larger political climate. Some Republican members of Congress, such as many of Cruz's former Capitol Hill allies in the House Freedom Caucus, have become enthusiastic supporters of their new party leader; a few others have voiced open criticism (usually on route to departure from office). But most Republican politicians have cautiously stayed in the middle, calibrating their words and actions to satisfy the conservative activist base without staking their own public reputation on Trump's behavior. Once an attention-grabbing insurgent within his party, Cruz has become one more Republican hoping to be among the survivors of the high winds whipped up by this season's political hurricane.