Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who incited a standoff over Obamacare culminating in a 16-day U.S. government shutdown, told party activists in Iowa that fighting the health law will pay dividends in the 2014 midterm elections.
The junior senator from Texas, just nine months in office, won a warm reception during a 45-minute speech tonight in which he said that his attempt to defund President Barack Obama’s signature health-care program has made a difference, even if it has cost his party in the polls.
“Collectively, we accomplished a great deal,” Cruz told about 600 Republican activists at a downtown convention hall in Des Moines. “We elevated the national debate over what a disaster, what a train-wreck, how much Obamacare is hurting millions of Americans.”
Cruz, 42, spoke at an annual dinner that’s one of the largest fundraising events for the state party and a regular stop for prospective presidential contenders. This is his third trip to Iowa this year, and he’s often mentioned as a potential 2016 Republican White House candidate.
Even so, by inspiring a showdown over the 2010 health-care law and the subsequent partial government shutdown that ended last week, Cruz’s tactics have strained relations with colleagues in Congress and Republican allies elsewhere.
Republicans are bearing the brunt of the blame for the shutdown, public opinion polls show. The episode has intensified an internal debate over the party’s direction, with the limited-government Tea Party element represented by Cruz urging ideological purity and more mainstream Republicans favoring a pragmatic approach and a broader party membership.
On Sept. 24, a week before the shutdown began, Cruz held the Senate floor for 21 hours to attack the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a tactic the Wall Street Journal editorial page likened to charging into “fixed bayonets.”
Cruz tonight dismissed such suggestions and said that U.S. politics have shifted. “It is a paradigm that is the rise of the grassroots,” he said. “It has official Washington absolutely terrified.”
“Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing matters more than an energized and active and vocal grassroots American,” he said. “That’s how you win elections.”
The legislative standoff over the government shutdown forced Democrats to take “a lot of stupid votes” that will haunt them a year from now, including refusing to repeal an exemption from Obamacare for members of Congress, Cruz said.
“Come October and November of 2014, we are going to see TV commercials all over this country of Democrats who voted to give themselves a special exemption from Obamacare,” he said.
Cruz has also made political visits this year to New Hampshire and South Carolina, where presidential primaries typically quickly follow the Iowa caucuses.
As a prelude to his speech, Cruz was the focus of a front-page story in the Des Moines Register, the state’s largest newspaper, after granting an interview that included such details as his favorite movie (“The Princess Bride”), the car he drives (a 2011 Range Rover) and his least favorite food (avocados).
The Texas senator is continuing his Iowa stop with some weekend pheasant hunting at the side of U.S. Representative Steve King, a Republican from the state’s northwest corner who is also a darling of the Tea Party movement. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who’s scheduled to appear in Iowa next month as he explores a possible second White House run, and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania both went hunting with King in 2011 when they ran for president.
The spotlight on Cruz leading up to and during the government shutdown has boosted both his positive and negative ratings in polls. A Pew Research Center survey released Oct. 16 showed his favorable rating among Tea Party-oriented Republicans soared to 74 percent, from 47 percent in July. Negative views of him increased 15 percentage points among non-Tea Party Republicans, with almost a third having an unfavorable opinion of him in the survey.
A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Oct. 10 -- when the shutdown was still in effect -- showed Cruz rated negatively by 28 percent of the 800 adults surveyed and favorably by 14 percent. In a comparable survey in early June, Cruz’s ratings were 10 percent negative and 12 percent positive.
The five national Democratic organizations charged with electing party members to state and federal offices used Cruz’s Iowa appearance to attack Republicans ahead of next year’s midterm congressional races.
“Make no mistake: Ted Cruz is leading the Republican Party,” said a joint memo from the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “Candidates want to be him. Incumbents are afraid of him. The Republican Party base is energized by him.”
A.J. Spiker, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and a supporter of former Representative Ron Paul of Texas in the state’s 2012 caucuses, said Cruz could catch on as a 2016 presidential contender.
“With people who are unhappy with what Washington has been delivering for the last 50 years, I think his message of late is something that’s really appealing,” Spiker said. “He’s bringing a message that it’s serious to the point where it’s time for an intervention by the adults.”
Governor Terry Branstad, Iowa’s top Republican, expressed hesitancy about Cruz this week when he suggested to reporters that someone other than a senator would have the best chance of turning around the country’s finances.
“He’s just one of 100 members of the Senate,” Branstad said. “I believe the leadership in this country is coming from the governors and from the states, not from Washington, D.C., and I don’t think one freshman senator can turn this all around. I think it’s really going to take executive leadership.”
Some business-oriented Republicans in Iowa also expressed skepticism about Cruz.
“I think he’s a demagogue, and demagogues tend to flame out,” said Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer and Republican party leader who has long followed the Iowa caucuses.
“I don’t expect him to be a major factor in 2016,” said Gross, who ran Mitt Romney’s first presidential campaign in Iowa in 2008. “I’d be surprised if he were.”