WASHINGTON – It’s no secret that Sen. Ted Cruz has his eye on running for president again.
The Texas Republican, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, has been a loyal advocate for former President Donald Trump and has attempted to position himself as the rightful heir to his base.
But Cruz’s ambitions could be complicated after flying to Mexico as his home state of Texas was weathering the aftermath of a deadly winter storm that left millions without power and running water in freezing temperatures.
“Natural disasters have a way of upending politicians” careers,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, who pointed to examples including President George Bush during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “For politicians, the first rule of any natural disaster is to show up and Cruz broke that rule.”
About 180,000 customers in Texas were still without power Friday, a number that’s gone down significantly from the 4 million who were in the dark earlier this week. Problems with accessing clean drinking water have persisted after pipes burst in the frigid temperatures.
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Cruz’s getaway lasted less than a day
Pictures of Cruz traveling started circulating Wednesday night, immediately drawing the ire of his Democratic critics as many Texans remained without power in structures not designed to withstand the winter’s cold.
After returning to Texas the next day, Cruz called the trip “a mistake” and said he was just trying to be a good father and husband.
Standing outside his home in Houston Thursday evening, with the chants of protesters audible, Cruz said his original intention was to stay in Cancun through the weekend with his daughters and wife. His daughters had requested a trip somewhere warm after they lost power and school was cancelled, he said.
“In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it,” Cruz said, adding it had been his “intention to work remotely,” but it became “more compelling” for him to return as controversy grew about the trip.
Cruz’s office did not respond to questions about whether the senator would be quarantining after the trip or whether he had received the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine was offered late last year to members of Congress amid continuation of government efforts. Cruz said at the time he would not immediately take it in hopes of getting it first to seniors and others in need.
The CDC recommends getting tested for COVID-19 three to five days after traveling and staying home for seven days and quarantining even if you test negative after travel.
Will the trip impact his future?
Conant, like other political watchers, said it’s unclear whether the fallout from the trip will continue to follow Cruz. He noted Cruz’s quick apology and hitting the issue head-on could help put the story quickly to rest.
“I think he made a big mistake but did a good job of putting it behind him as quickly as he could,” he said.
Cruz narrowly won his reelection in 2018 against Beto O’Rourke. As Cruz traveled, his former opponent coordinated a phone bank to contact seniors across the state and connect them to cold-weather resources.
Carlos Algara, a political science professor at the University of Texas in El Paso, said Cruz’s actions when he returned home indicate how damaging this trip could be for his political future.
Cruz returned to Texas within 12 hours of leaving. He spoke to both local and national media outlets and offered a frank apology.
“If he thought this wasn’t a big deal, he wouldn’t have bent over backwards,” Algara said. “The wave of bad press forced him to do something that Senator Cruz rarely does: He came out and offered a mea culpa.”
Algara added the flub highlighted on of Cruz’s biggest political liabilities: His character and ability to be empathetic.
“He has serious branding issues,” Algara said. “If he runs for president, you can be sure this will come up. His opponents are definitely salivating at the thought of using those pictures of Cruz at the airport in attack ads.”
Political experts across Texas acknowledged that Cruz’s quick apology could quell the scandal in the short term, but it’s sure to follow him in the leadup to 2024, when he is up for re-election in the Senate or if he enters the Republican primary for president.
Stephen Amberg, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Cruz isn’t known for his legislating but rather as a soldier in the conservative movement, especially under former President Donald Trump.
“He’s a culture warrior,” Amberg said, explaining that the trip might hurt his brand but could hold deeper ramifications statewide in the Republican Party, which has controlled Texas for decades. “The Republican Party as a whole is not going to be able to escape this scathing criticism.”
What is Cruz’s role in a disaster?
Some Republicans came to Cruz’s defense as critics piled on. They argued he wasn’t the state’s governor and wasn’t charged with coordinating the disaster response.
Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son, wrote on Twitter that there’s a “difference between a Governor and a Senator in terms of job description and what they can do for localized disasters. Optics is one thing but let’s be real here.”
In natural disasters like what is happening in Texas, governors typically lead the response and coordinate with federal agencies to get help to those in need.
But, like any elected official, senators can play a key role in putting pressure on officials to quickly help constituents. Those with national prominence, like Cruz, can be an important voice.
Conant, who worked for Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, agreed that senators don’t lead the response but constituents expect to see their leaders helping during a crisis, not leaving them behind.
“Senators carry weight. They can get a cabinet official on the phone or the FEMA director or other White House officials on a call,” Conant said. “They have the ability to shed light and raise alarms in a way that governors and congressmen cannot always do.”
As Cruz left the state, other elected leaders in Texas rallied to help constituents, painting an optics problem for the junior senator.
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, led a letter to the main electricity company in the state demanding answers. He sent out a flurry of tweets over several days, offering addresses to shelters and food pantries and even went to a local school to ensure he had internet access to participate in a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing, where he again demanded answers for the power outages in his state.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, helped load donated water bottles into cars in Houston. New York Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even pitched in. She launched a fundraiser that raised more than $2 million and said she was flying to Texas to help distribute supplies.
Algara said the argument that Cruz has no role in a disaster is “mind bogglingly ridiculous.”
He noted staff often are on the phone with constituents, helping direct them to help, while senators usually are on the phone advocating for areas that have been hard hit and getting answers on supplies and other help are.
“There’s a lot senators do behind the scenes,” said Algara, who previously worked on Capitol Hill as a fellow. “They don’t coordinate a response but they are liaisons between states and the federal government.”
Contributing: Nicholas Wu