Eleanor Darragh, Sen. Ted Cruz’s mother, speaks during a campaign event with her son, his wife, Heidi, second from left, and Carly Fiorina in Madison, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo: Darren Hauck/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE — Ted Cruz has made no secret of his adoration for his father, Rafael, whom he calls his personal hero.
In speech after speech, the Texas senator and Republican presidential hopeful has recounted for audiences the story of how his father fought for freedom in Cuba before escaping to the United States to embrace the American dream. Rafael Cruz’s biography has been the emotional and inspirational bedrock of his son’s bid for the White House, and as such, he has been one of the senator’s busiest and most recognizable campaign surrogates.
But in recent days, Rafael Cruz has taken a smaller part in his son’s stump speech. On the trail in New York and Wisconsin, the Texas senator has instead started to talk more about his relationship with his mother, Eleanor Darragh, who thus far has played almost no public role in her son’s political career.
In a departure from speeches in early voting states like Iowa, Cruz’s remarks lately have been laced with his mother’s personal biography, as he tells voters of the influential role “strong women” have played in his life. He has described his mom as a brilliant woman who overcame daunting personal obstacles — including an alcoholic father who didn’t believe women should be educated — to be the first in her family to graduate from college. Later, he says, she battled sexism to become a successful computer programmer for the oil industry in an era when few women held such jobs.
Speaking to voters in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday, Cruz heaped praise upon his mom, now 81, calling her a career “pioneer” who has been “my best friend my entire life.” And as he did so, he looked across the stage where Darragh sat beaming — in what was her first campaign appearance ever. When it was Darragh’s turn to speak, her son directed her to hold the microphone closer so the audience could hear. The petite woman, with dark hair and features that closely resemble her son’s, fumbled with the microphone.
“I’m not used to this,” Darragh, who is divorced from Cruz’s father, nervously admitted.
Cruz’s mother wasn’t the only woman onstage. At her side was her son’s wife, Heidi, and Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive who endorsed Cruz when she ended her own bid for the Republican nomination. They each took turns speaking about being a professional woman balancing their work and family lives. And they spoke of how Cruz is the best choice for president because he has surrounded himself with strong women.
The event was part of what the Cruz campaign billed as a “celebration of women” — as the Texas senator looks to female voters as a possible way to stop GOP rival Donald Trump’s march to the party’s nomination.
After campaigning as a brash conservative who is willing to go to war with his own party to defend his principles, Cruz has tried to present a softer side on the campaign in recent days — talking up his close relationships with his mom and wife and insisting he’s the best candidate for female voters.
“Women are not a special interest,” Cruz said earlier this week. “Women are a majority of the United States of America, and every issue is a women’s issue.”
Cruz is trying to capitalize on Trump’s increasing problems with female voters amid a series of gaffes and controversial remarks that have rocked his campaign. On Wednesday, Trump suggested during a MSNBC town hall that women who undergo abortions should face “punishment” if the procedure is outlawed, before walking back the statement a few hours later. At the same time, Trump has strongly defended his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was charged earlier this week with simple battery after he tangled with a female reporter at a campaign event earlier this month. Not only has Trump stood by his embattled campaign aide, he has repeatedly mocked the reporter— Michelle Fields, formerly of Breitbart News Network — suggesting she exaggerated the incident and her injuries.
Through it all, Cruz and Trump have been engaged in an increasingly personal back and forth over their wives, a conflict that was inflamed by a National Enquirer report that alleged Cruz had been engaged in extramarital affairs. Cruz has denied cheating on his wife — calling the tabloid report “garbage” — and blamed Trump for planting the story — a charge the GOP frontrunner denied.
A supporter holds a poster at a Cruz campaign event in Madison. (Photo: Andy Manis/AP)
Seeing an opening, Cruz has sought to turn Trump’s attacks on women to his advantage — especially in Wisconsin, where next Tuesday’s Republican primary could be a crucial test of whether the #NeverTrump movement can slow or even stop the real estate mogul from winning the GOP nomination. At event after event, Cruz has reminded voters of Trump’s contentious relationship with women, including Megyn Kelly of Fox News, whom Trump has repeatedly personally attacked.
“We don’t want a president who traffics in sleaze and slime,” Cruz said during a campaign stop last week in Wisconsin. “We don’t want a president who seems to have a real issue with strong women.”
And he has echoed the concern of other Republicans who believe Trump’s poor standing with women could potentially kill the GOP’s chance of taking back the White House.
In 2012, women made up more than half of the voting electorate, and they favored President Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by 11 points — a stat that was later highlighted in the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of how the party lost the campaign. The report stated that the GOP’s inability to win female voters was costing the party crucial elections.
Recent polls suggest Trump is not in a position to turn things around. The real estate mogul’s approval ratings have been low with women generally, and his numbers appear to be falling even further. A recent CNN poll released March 24 found 73 percent of women have an unfavorable view of Trump, while a March 17 Reuters poll found 50 percent of women have a “very unfavorable” view.
In Wisconsin, 76 percent of registered female voters have an unfavorable view of Trump, according to a Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday. And that appears to be helping Cruz, who leads Trump among likely women voters by 39 percent to 24 percent. Overall, the Texas senator leads Trump by 10 points ahead of next week’s primary, according to the Marquette poll.
During the MSNBC town hall, Trump acknowledged that he appeared to be losing ground with women voters. “The numbers aren’t good,” he said. “The numbers aren’t as good with women as they were. But nobody respects women more than I do.”
But Cruz, a strict conservative who has had his own issues with women voters in the past, is aggressively pushing the contrast between him and Trump, casting himself as someone who is comfortable with “strong women” — a phrase he uses again and again.
Introducing his mom, wife and Fiorina to the stage on Wednesday, he praised them as “three strong women who I admire, who I respect, who I’ve learned from, who I look up to [and] who I think exemplify the incredible opportunity that America provides to everyone.”
Cruz speaks during a “Celebration of Women” event, Wednesday in Madison. (Photo: Darren Hauck/Getty Images)
Sitting opposite his mom, who was so quiet at times she could barely be heard, Cruz admitted he had not spoken enough about her while campaigning. While he often spoke of the role his father played in encouraging him, including helping him to memorize and recite the Constitution as part of an academic group he participated in, he now tells of how his mother had been there too — often driving him around the state to speeches and chaperoning him and his friends on longer trips.
“My relationship with both of my parents is very different,” Cruz explained. “I talk about my dad a lot more, and my dad has always been larger than life. He has always been my hero.”
Cruz implied his mother’s feelings had been hurt because he never talked about her. “I’d sit down, and I hadn’t talked about my mom. And my mother would look at me and say, ‘Did you have a mother? Were you raised by wolves?’” Cruz said, as the audience and her mother laughed. “But my mom, it was always a very, very different relationship. I mean, we would just talk. We would talk and talk and talk.”
She was, Cruz explained, his “best friend.”
No one mentioned Trump by name at the event, but the optics were clear. At one point, Heidi Cruz looked around the room and pitched her husband as someone who insisted their marriage be a “partnership of equals” and that she fell in love with him not because of his intellect but because of his caring and compassionate nature.
“I want all of the women here in Wisconsin and across this country to know how incredibly supportive Ted has always been of all the women in his life,“ she said. “This is a son who was by his mother’s side when she had breast cancer. This is a husband who has suggested I go for every single promotion I have ever gotten.”
A few feet away, Cruz, who has been bashed by Trump and other rivals as being so brash and self-centered he doesn’t have “a single friend” in the Senate, simply sat back and let the women do the talking.