It Sounds Like Ted Cruz Is Getting a Little Anxious
With the 2018 midterms only eight months away, Texas senator Ted Cruz informally suspended his perpetual vanity presidential campaign on Wednesday to focus on his Senate reelection bid, releasing a 60-second radio spot attacking Democratic primary winner Beto O'Rourke for, among other things, going by an ethnically incongruous nickname. Set to the tune of Alabama's "If You're Gonna Play in Texas," the jingle relates the tale of one "liberal Robert" who, the singer explains, "changed his name to Beto because he wanted to fit in."
The rest of the ad is a standard-issue mad lib of ominous right-wing buzzwords. (O'Rourke "wants those open borders"; he "wants to take our guns.") The real head-scratcher, though, is the fact that a Republican senator named Rafael Edward Cruz decided that implicitly questioning a political opponent's authenticity by drawing attention to the origins of their nickname is a good idea. O'Rourke—who, unlike Cruz, is from Texas—has explained that his parents began calling him "Beto," a common diminutive in Mexico for Robert, when he was a kid. Although it doesn't explicitly say as much, it's hard to interpret the ad as anything other than a coded assertion that O'Rourke, by picking a moniker that sounds a little more Texas and a little less white dude, doesn't really belong.
When asked to elaborate by CNN's Chris Cuomo, Cruz responded by launching into his stump speech about his family's path to the United States. "In terms of the jingle? Some of it is just having a sense of humor," the notoriously un-funny man eventually explained. "We had some fun with it!" We sought clarification from his campaign regarding what, exactly, makes this angle such a laugher, but they did not respond to a request for comment.
The point here is not to argue about whether O'Rourke is "allowed" to go by a Hispanic nickname, or whether adopting an Anglicized version of his given name was motivated by Cruz's fondness for brevity or a desire to sound less foreign. (Cruz, for the record, went by "Felito" until age 13, and has previously shared that his father was "furious" with the decision.) Accusing an opponent of some type of "-washing" is a particularly gross and ugly brand of identity politics that has no bearing on what a candidate believes, or on which of them is best suited to represent Texas. The fact that Cruz is already leaning in to it reveals a lot about how he feels about November, when he'll ask voters for another term despite a painfully thin legislative résumé, a lengthy history of looking for another job, and an unfavorability rating that hasn't eclipsed his favorability rating in more than two years.
The party took advantage of a historically weak opponent in Alabama and won itself a Senate seat on the strength of massive voter turnout. Its next challenge will be applying those lessons elsewhere.
Cruz will still probably succeed at that task—no Democrat has won a statewide election in Texas since 1994, and he'll appear on the same ballot as an enormously popular Republican governor. For all the buzz around the race, CNN has reclassified his seat only from "Safe GOP" to "Likely GOP." But Texas is turning purpler than ever, and if the trend continues, someone with a D next to their name will eventually break through. At the very least, his upstart challenger has the incumbent sounding a little shook.
A more complicated problem for Cruz is that a closer-than-expected Senate race could damage his already-slim chances at winning the executive position he so obviously covets. Even if he bests O'Rourke by mobilizing the base and playing far-right hits like "open borders," doing so could make it much tougher for him to court more moderate voters in his next go-round as a Republican presidential candidate. Ted Cruz has always harbored lofty national ambitions, but foundational shifts in the American political landscape are transforming him into, at most, a provincial politician with a hard ceiling. And even that bit of job security might be eroding faster than he thinks.