WASHINGTON — After a presidential campaign that saw him go from the most hated man in the Senate to last-ditch standard bearer for the establishment’s Never Trump movement, Ted Cruz returned to the Senate this week with a choice to make.
Does he return to his monkey wrench ways, which made him a conservative hero in the Senate, and burn the few bridges to his colleagues he built in the waning days of his failed bid? Or, does he find ways to build upon those relationships, hit the road to support House and Senate candidates, and nurture a persona as a party uniter?
Cruz himself has given little indication of what he’s planning. But some people close to him argue if he can use his national profile to build good will with Republican senators over the next few years, he could be well positioned to be the man who can unite the firebrand and establishment wings of the GOP come 2020.
“This is a big moment for him,” said one member of Cruz’s inner circle. “He has a little bit of breathing room in terms of time to figure it out. A lot of it will impact how he treats the Senate races. A lot of people will be watching. Does he go out and campaign for these other senators, raise money for them? Is he really out there pounding the pavement in order to get them across the finish line?”
Tuesday marked one week since Cruz dropped out of the race, and it was the day Cruz returned to the Senate. Surrounded by a thick pack of reporters outside his office in the Russell building, Cruz took a few questions and didn’t seem prepared to declare a detente with the party that spurned, and then begrudgingly sort of embraced him.
“I’m going to continue fighting for the American people,” Cruz said. “And if fighting for the American people makes you an outsider in the Senate, then I will happily remain an outsider.”
Despite his rhetorical swagger — which in the past incensed his colleagues and was one of the key reasons for the near universal dislike for the Texas Republican — even his most vocal critics, at least for now, appear willing to let bygones be bygones.
"You come out of this thing, let's say we lost the White House, I hope we can all focus on a Republican Party that's got a place for all of us,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who ran for president himself for a time, then endorsed Jeb Bush, then switched his endorsement to Cruz after Bush dropped out. “We had just a bitter struggle in the party about our differences. I think our differences are nuanced, tactical more than strategic. And after all this mess is over, the one thing I hope for is that the party can focus on what we have in common and accept our differences."
That’s a remarkable turnaround from this winter, when Graham described the choice between Cruz and Donald Trump as akin to that between being shot and poisoned.
Asked if he would support Cruz again if Cruz ran in 2020, Graham laughed. “I don't know about that,” he said. "I supported him this time because I thought he was the best alternative to Donald Trump, and he ran a hell of campaign of which he should be proud of."
Cruz campaigned on his unpopularity in the Senate, casting himself as the ultimate Washington outsider breaking the rules in the clubby, out-of-touch atmosphere of the upper chamber. The Senate, in Cruz’s parlance, was part of the “Washington Cartel” he railed against. But he rarely talked about the apogee of this: his role in the government shutdown of 2013. And the fact that his colleagues never truly threw their weight behind him despite his being the last man standing could, some think, inspire Cruz to build more bridges, especially this year when some of his colleagues’ re-election chances are directly imperiled by Trump.
Former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, who was one of Cruz’s national security advisers, also encouraged Cruz to do more work for the party.
“He will spend the next few years I assume doing a lot of appearances around the country and I think the best way for him to combat this constant series of hits, particularly from other Republican senators, is just to make himself better known,” Abrams said, suggesting Cruz “get around the country making speeches for Republican state parties, and for candidates running for [the] House and Senate who invite him.”
Cruz is 45 and is widely assumed to be planning on running again in 2020, if Trump loses this general election. His rhetoric at the end of his campaign regarding Trump seemed geared towards that end. Speaking to reporters on the final day of his campaign, Cruz unloaded on Trump, using language that’s hard to take back — “amoral,” “pathological liar,” “serial philanderer.” And so far, unlike Marco Rubio who made similarly pointed statements, Cruz has withheld his endorsement.
“My guess is that he would continue in the Senate pursuing a thoughtful conservative agenda and role and if Trump flames out again, that press conference may end up being prophetic — ‘I tried to warn you what’s going to happen,’” said Rick Tyler, Cruz’s former campaign spokesman. “Assuming that [Trump] does very poorly against Hillary Clinton and implodes the ticket and we lose seats all over the place, I absolutely think people will look to Cruz.”
But a lot depends on how the next few years go for Cruz, and for the party itself.
“He’s probably done more for party unity this year than almost anyone else,” said Kellyanne Conway, who ran the main pro-Cruz super PACs. After Cruz dropped out, Conway announced she will now support Trump as the nominee. “He made a graceful exit from the race.”
“The rise of Donald Trump will give people a second look at Ted Cruz,” Conway said.
Victoria Coates, Cruz’s top national security adviser, said Cruz was focused on getting back to work in the Senate. “In terms of national security there is a real platform in the senate he is extremely well poised to take advantage of,” she said.
Coates noted Cruz’s winning the Texas primary by a large margin. “I think he just got a huge vote of confidence from his home state and he wants to repay that by doing his job,” she said.
Coates noted Cruz’s tense relationship with his colleagues but said it had never been personal; and on the topic of whether Cruz will campaign for fellow Republicans up for re-election, Coates said “I think you could probably surmise from what he did in 2014 which is, ‘if people want me I’ll come, if they want me to stay away I’ll stay away.’ Certainly from his perspective as a senator keeping as many seats as we can in the senate is a priority.”
But some doubt that Cruz did enough to win people over to his cause during the campaign, and indeed, many in his party withheld their endorsement or endorsed Trump over him even though he was the last viable non-Trump option.
“He’s just not a guy who can reach across and bring people on board,” said one anti-Trump Republican strategist. "He did not go out of his way to try and bring people together."
"I figure he just stays the course" for 2020, the strategist said. "I think he only has one gear."
On Tuesday, Cruz himself appeared to already be looking past the immediate future.
“We’ve withdrawn from the campaign, it’s in the hands of the voters,” he said. “If circumstances change we will always assess changed circumstances. I appreciate the eagerness and excitement of all the folks in the media to see me back in the ring, but you may have to wait a little longer.”