WICHITA FALLS, Texas — Donald Trump Jr. bounded on stage here to wild cheers from the thousand or so Republican faithful who had taken their Wednesday afternoon off and dressed in their political finest, including their flaming red Make America Great Again hats and brand new Trump 2020 shirts. It felt like a rally for Trump’s father — or maybe even Trump Jr. himself, a regular on the conservative speaking circuit who has floated the idea of running for office one day.
But the president’s son was there for Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas and tea party stalwart who has not always been on the friendliest of terms with the Trump family and who is now facing a tougher than expected reelection fight. And at the start of his remarks, Trump Jr. said, he had to address that “elephant in the room,” the bad blood between Cruz and his father after the bitterly contested 2016 Republican presidential primary.
The younger Trump didn’t need to go into specifics. Few in Texas have forgotten the invective traded by Donald Trump and the man he called “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” during the 2016 campaign. Trump circulated tweets meant to insult the appearance of Cruz’s wife and infamously implied that the senator’s father had been involved in the JFK assassination. The president has never publicly apologized or recanted. And Cruz, who slammed Trump as “utterly amoral” and a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen,” has repeatedly declined the opportunity to take his own words back, although he did write a fawning tribute to Trump’s political skills in Time magazine.
When Cruz — angered by the insults to his wife and father — refused to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention, even his own supporters booed him. At a breakfast for the Texas delegation the next morning, people stood and angrily denounced Cruz as petty and unforgiving. “Get over it, Ted!” a man in a giant cowboy hat yelled at the senator, who looked pained and embarrassed.
Evidently, Cruz did get over it. And that’s what Trump Jr. wanted to talk about. A few months after that bitter primary, Trump’s son recalled, he ran into Cruz at a political dinner in Washington where they were seated at the same table. “It was a little bit awkward, but both of us were having good conversation, as we should,” he told the crowd here.
Afterward, he had invited Cruz to join him and the others for post-dinner drinks at the Trump hotel in D.C., and the senator came, hanging with the group for three hours. “We had a ball, formed a good relationship, and let me tell you this: That wasn’t easy,” Trump Jr. said. “I mean, it’s the highest compliment. I don’t know that if the shoes were reversed that I could have done that. I’d like to believe that I could. But that’s a testament to this man’s character.”
“From that moment on,” Trump’s son said, Cruz has been an ally of his father. “From that moment on, this man has fought for you. He’s fought for Texas, and he’s fought for his constituents.”
A few yards away, off to the side of the stage where he stood listening, Cruz nodded at the president’s son in appreciation. Trump Jr.’s visit here was the beginning of what some have recently described as the “Republican rescue operation” for Cruz, who is facing a surprisingly robust challenge from Rep. Beto O’Rourke. A recent Quinnipiac poll had Cruz up by 9 points among likely Texas voters — a too-close-for-comfort margin in a ruby-red conservative state where no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.
The race is still Cruz’s to lose. There are more Republicans than Democrats in Texas. But Cruz has been blunt about his prospects for months — warning supporters that he really could lose in what some have predicted could be a blue wave year. Others have been more candid in their assessment. Last month, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, told a private meeting of top donors to the Republican National Committee that Cruz could lose because he is not “likeable” enough, according to the New York Times.
Now Cruz finds himself in a position he likely never imagined two years ago — clinging to Trump in hopes of winning a second term in the Senate. According to Republicans familiar with the campaign, there will be more implicit messaging — arguing that while Cruz is on the ballot, the race is really a referendum about Trump. It is an argument that Cruz has made in passing, but one that Republicans want to emphasize in hopes of bolstering turnout among GOP voters, who polls suggest lag Democrats in enthusiasm.
Trump Jr. was the first of many top Republicans expected to campaign in the state for Cruz in coming weeks. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to campaign for Cruz in Dallas on Monday. And Cruz will also soon appear with President Trump himself, who pledged in late August to rally for his former political rival “in the biggest stadium in Texas we can find.”
Speaking on Wednesday in Wichita Falls, a city located just south of the Oklahoma border in north Texas, Cruz presented himself as a strong ally of Trump. He spoke of their close working relationship in passing tax cuts and other legislation. He boasted of how he’d spent 45 minutes with the president on Air Force One appealing to him to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, which he said could have hurt oil industry jobs in Texas. “We are winning incredible victories for the American people,” Cruz said.
And he praised Trump Jr. and his father for their “steadfastness” in the face of “hatred” from Democrats. “You endure a lot of grief, you endure a lot of attacks, you endure a lot of nastiness, and your father endures even more grief and attacks and nastiness, and let me thank you for your steadfastness and his steadfastness fighting for the country and ignoring the hatred on the other side,” Cruz said.
The choice of Wichita Falls (there was also a second rally near Houston) was a sign of the concern Republicans have about Cruz’s fate a month before Election Day. Wichita Falls is a solidly Republican city that Trump carried with more than 70 percent of the vote.
But O’Rourke has made a big play for rural Texas. He brags that he’s made stops in all of the state’s 254 counties, and in some places has looped back again. That includes Wichita Falls, where at a rally in August he attracted a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred. Among those who have endorsed him: Wichita Falls Mayor Stephen Santellana, a Republican, who said he decided to back O’Rourke because he felt he genuinely cared about the residents and fate of rural Texas.
That charm offensive has forced Cruz to work harder than he did in his previous Senate campaign in 2012. He’s visited dozens of cities in rural Texas in the last three months. But some backers worry that just enough voters could be wooed by O’Rourke’s outreach to make the difference in November.
On Wednesday, state Rep. Pat Fallon, who is running for state Senate, spoke to the crowd while waiting for Cruz and Trump Jr. to arrive. He repeatedly reminded them of what Cruz had done for them. “Don’t forget all the times he’s shown up for you,” he said.
In a race where there are stark differences between the two candidates and almost no area of common ground, Cruz has said Republican complacency will be his biggest challenge in November. “If we turn out, we win,” he said.
But turnout continues to be a concern. Some have blamed lukewarm feelings about Cruz, reflecting in part resentment over his starting a presidential run a year into his first term in the Senate. But there’s also a view that Republican voters are complacent about the midterms because, having been told over and over by Trump not to trust the media, they think alarms about a “blue wave” election are fake news.
It was a message that Trump Jr. hinted at on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of people out there, I’ve seen the numbers, they say, ‘Ah, you know what, the same fake news media that said Trump could never win is telling me he’s going to lose the midterms. I’m not worried,’” Trump Jr. said Wednesday. “Guess what? … Hate is a powerful motivator. It’s all they got, because the rest of the policies are as stupid as hell, but they got a lot of hate. I need you guys to come out in droves. I need you to call your friends. I need you to volunteer. I need you to motivate.”
As he spoke, a woman waved a giant Trump flag and others thrust their Ted Cruz signs in the air. Nearby, a woman and her daughter wore custom Cruz-Trump shirts they had designed themselves. “Trump isn’t on the ballot [by name], but he is,” she said. “He and Ted are together in this.”
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