Senator Ted Cruz's aides creased their eyebrows and exchanged bewildered looks as their boss, who had gathered them for a motivational speech, repeatedly shouted for them to "steal the moon." Cruz detected the confusion and drew everyone around a computer screen to explain the reference, a scene from the movie "Despicable Me." It's when the film's animated protagonist–the bald, pointy-nosed Gru–unveils to his begoggled, banana-yellow Minions a plan to "pull off the crime of the century."
For the staff who recalled the anecdote, it was an endearing moment, an inside view of Cruz as a pop-culture junkie who probably watched the flick with his two young daughters. But it also served as a metaphor for Cruz's biggest weakness as he considers whether to run for president in 2016: The Tea Party's hero in Washington is increasingly seen as the super-villain of the Republican Party, anathema to Democrats, reviled by conventional pro-business Republicans and viewed warily by the independent middle.
The result is a part-time campaign role for Cruz—not unlike his biggest foil, President Barack Obama—as his colleagues make a final push to capture the Senate. Both men have been shoved to the sidelines in Senate races in traditionally purple states, where moderate or independent voters could make the difference in Tuesday's election. Instead, Cruz and Obama mostly have been relied on to raise money or to rally their party's core voters on the fringes of the battlefield. Most recently, Cruz appeared with Senate candidates in Georgia and Kansas, deeply red states where Republicans currently hold the seat and need a strong turnout from their base to fend off challengers. He'll also campaign this week in Alaska, a state that no Democratic presidential candidate has carried since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
"In races that are on the bubble—in Colorado, Iowa and other places—these candidates need to center themselves somewhat because these are purple states," said Tom Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Ted Cruz can taint you with voters that can make the difference in the race. That's not true in Kansas, and probably not true in Georgia, either."
The 43-year-old Texan has become a political lightning rod after less than two years in the U.S. Senate, where he has largely ignored a tradition in which freshmen are seen but not heard. Instead, he's urged Republicans to oppose Obamacare at every turn, once filibustering for more than 21 hours against the law and leading a bloc that forced a government shutdown. His opposition to House Republican leaders' plan to address a surge of undocumented immigrant children apprehended at the border this summer helped persuade all but 11 House Republicans to take a vote that would increase deportations of immigrants already living in the U.S. who were brought to the country as children. It wasn't the type of legislation party leaders had envisioned to appeal to Hispanic voters, the nation's fastest-growing voter bloc.
That hard-charging style troubles general election voters. In the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll earlier this month, Cruz performed worst among potential Republican presidential contenders in a hypothetical matchup with presumed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
That's not keeping Cruz out of Iowa, home to the nation's first presidential nominating contest. According to the campaign tracking website P2016.org, he has touched down in Iowa seven times in the past two years, second only to Texas Governor Rick Perry among Republicans weighing a bid for the White House. Most of his visits were aimed at generating cash for the party or conservative groups.
Yet when it comes to the state's competitive Senate race, Cruz hasn't been to any public events for Republican nominee Joni Ernst, though he has given her campaign $5,000 and cast his corn kernel for her at this summer's Iowa State Fair. Meanwhile, other potential Republican presidential contenders such as Perry, Rand Paul, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio have stumped for Ernst while simultaneously putting out their own presidential feelers.
In other presidential battlegrounds, Rubio has campaigned with the party's Senate nominees in New Hampshire and Colorado, where fellow Floridian Jeb Bush is scheduled to host a get-out-the-vote rally this week in suburban Denver. Paul cut a TV ad (financed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a Tea Party nemesis) for North Carolina nominee Thom Tillis, who also has welcomed support from Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. "I'm thrilled to have the broad support that I do," Tillis said as he stood next to Paul this month.
And that's the risk with Cruz. Tillis can try to leverage the support of Rubio or Paul to appeal to his state's diverse electorate, but Cruz's damn-the-torpedoes style—a proven winner for motivating the base—tends to narrow the playbook.
Consider what happened last Saturday in Georgia, as Cruz campaigned for Republican Senate nominee David Perdue. At New Life Church, an evangelical ministry in Canton, about an hour north of Atlanta, Cruz was in his element. Seated in the front row was Michael Baum, a 40-year-old hospital auditor who opposes gay marriage and, contrary to public polls, believes that most Americans do, too. Not far away was Bob Schmeidt, a 59-year-old consultant who created "Ted Cruz for President" stickers for the day and praised Cruz's lead role in the federal government shutdown, calling it a belt-tightening measure.
Retiree Sarah Steingraber said she doesn't think Obama cares about the country. Conrad Quagliaroli, wearing a "no socialists" pin, said Obama is the worst president in U.S. history—"but it's not because he's black." Obama's pandering to Hispanic voters has contributed to a porous southern border where Islamic State terrorists are now sneaking through, said Kathryn Garland, 60, though there's no evidence of that.
Their suggested solution to the country's woes? President Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz. Terein lies the problem for Cruz: There just aren't that many people who share that view.
Cruz is hugely popular among Tea Party voters, but so far, that's about it. In the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll of Iowa Republican caucusgoers, he's viewed favorably by 70 percent of respondents who identify themselves as "very conservative." But less than half of the self-described conservative voters and only a third of moderates said the same. In a McClatchy-Marist national poll this month, Cruz was the last choice for the party's nomination among Republican and Republican-leaning voters who said they don't support the Tea Party.
Cruz's strong support within the Republican base is enough to put him in the conversation for the party's 2016 nomination, but it's also a narrow slice of voters among those who will ultimately pick the president. In Canton, for example, Cruz's event with Perdue drew about 235 people, roughly half of what organizers anticipated.
"The thing that concerns me about Cruz is he reminds me of the preachers in these churches that are driving out the heretics," Davis said. "Well, the successful churches are the ones that are welcoming in converts."
There's little question that Cruz is preparing for a bigger stage. His political action committee has given thousands to the party's Senate candidates, $250,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and hosted more than 40 fundraisers in Texas, Ohio, California, Florida, and South Carolina, according to his staff. And he's campaigned with non-Senate candidates in states that will play a central role in the presidential election, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and his home state of Texas. Later this week, he's scheduled to appear with Florida Governor Rick Scott.
In Kansas earlier this month, he stayed at a public event far longer than the candidate, incumbent Senator Pat Roberts, spending nearly an hour shaking hands, snapping selfies, and answering questions. "I understand, I promise you, there is nobody more frustrated with Washington, D.C. than I am," Cruz told a few hundred people at the Wichita Area Builders Association. Roberts had nothing but praise for his younger colleague. "Ted Cruz came roaring into the Senate in 2012 a lot like a prairie fire,'' he said. "We have to have those every once in a while to clean out the weeds."
But party elders are clearly wary about a message that alienates moderates. In a report following the 2012 presidential election—the party's fourth loss in the last six tries—the Republican National Committee urged candidates to win elections by appealing to a broader cross-section of voters. "We're in a strong position to win back the Senate, but there are still lessons to be learned," said Henry Barbour, an RNC member and one of the co-authors of the report. "Some of the messaging that's been effective in 2014 may not be what delivers the White House, and people need to be smart about that."
Looking forward, Barbour said the party will have to move beyond political attacks that cast Obama as a demagogue and attempt to tie Democratic candidates to the unpopular president–the basic elements of Cruz's stump speech. "Everybody is not going to agree on tactics all of the time," Barbour said when asked directly about Cruz.
U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, who first won elected office in the state in 1970s, suggested to the Canton crowd that Cruz has an appeal that could reach beyond the base. Sure, Cruz has degrees from Princeton and Harvard (a feat Republicans have used in elections past to suggest elitism), "but I have seen him eat country brisket and country barbecue," Isakson said. "So I know he's a good man."
"Ted Cruz has only been in the Senate a short time, but he has made a remarkable difference," Isakson said.
Cruz followed Isakson and paced from church-stage left to right and back again. A preacher's son in cowboy boots, he pressed his palms together as the crowd roared approval of the barbs he lobbed at Obama, the IRS and red-state Democrats who have the gall to suggest they're different from party leaders in Washington. "Let me tell you right now, every single one of them is lying to you," Cruz said. "They come home and promise their values are just like yours. And frankly they think the voters aren't smart enough to see through what they're doing."
Senate Democrats oppose free speech, he added, and Obama's administration is trying to violate each guarantee in the Bill of Rights. When Cruz asserted that Islamic State terrorists have threatened to take jihad to America, multiple members of the audience responded: "They're already here."
Cruz let the comments, which the State Department has refuted, hang in the air. A few minutes later, he quoted Marine General John Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, who said earlier this month that a hypothetical Ebola outbreak south of the border would spark a mass migration. This, for Cruz, is another reason to ramp up security along the southern border that has undergone an unprecedented military buildup with more physical obstacles than ever. "And yet Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats have done nothing," Cruz told the crowd.
The only mention in Cruz's 25-minute speech about his ability to bring together diverse groups was a joke about a political battle in Houston that Cruz has joined over the city's efforts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Cruz opposes the city's subpoena for church sermons and other documents related to an effort to nullify the ordinance. "The unity was incredible," Cruz said of his efforts to organize opposition. "We even brought together First Baptist and Second Baptist. And that ain't easy."
While much of Cruz's speech was about himself, he also does exactly what he was brought in for: giving plenty of plugs to Perdue and repeatedly urging the crowd to bring their friends to the polls. He praised Perdue for wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, abolish the IRS and "stop Obama's amnesty." He excoriated Perdue's Democratic opponent, Michelle Nunn, painting her as a presidential pawn and, in a putdown that suggested some other-worldly power for Democrats to clone themselves, said, "Michelle Nunn is Harry Reid."
It's an ironic condemnation, given the distance many Senate Republican candidates have put between the Texas senator and their campaigns. I asked Cruz, as he walks to a waiting SUV, why he hasn't been invited into more purple states. The eloquent attorney looked down at his boots, and kept his answer short.
"It is amusing that it's treated as news that Democrats are attacking me," he said. "At the end of the day, the voters are going to decide."
With assistance from Lisa Lerer in Wichita, Kansas.