The Ted Cruz Effect: How One Man Destabilized the Government
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Late in August, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, traveled to a private residence in Dublin, N.H., to headline a fundraiser for the state Republican Party. Cruz’s spiel lasted about an hour, and was packed with the mix of straw men and inflammatory nonsense we’ve come to expect out of the junior senator from Texas.
But before he really got into it, he took a moment to say a few nice words about his GOP colleague from the state, who was also in attendance.
“Kelly Ayotte is a rock star,” Cruz said. “Let me tell you, your senator is as tough as granite. There is no stronger advocate of the men and women in our military in the U.S. Senate than is Kelly Ayotte, and there is no one tougher going to get the truth about what happened in Benghazi than Kelly Ayotte.”
Insincere camaraderie is a fact of life that’s been with us since the Senate invented it in 1804, so in most senses Cruz’ remarks aren’t a big surprise. But they belie an invisible, and real, division between Cruz’s wing of the party and the core of the Senate GOP that Ayotte (who’s no objective person’s example of a Republican-in-Name Only) represented that night.
Cruz is a Republican, and in that capacity, serves as a vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose job it is to maximize GOP representation in the Senate. But he’s also closely aligned with outside organizations like Heritage Action, and the Senate Conservatives Fund — groups that support and fund primary challenges against Republicans in good standing and otherwise work against official party goals. In 2010, before Cruz entered the national scene, SCF endorsed Ayotte’s opponent in 2010.
In 2013, Cruz is SCF’s shining prince — the archetype to which they want all other Republican senators to aspire. For the moment that means signing a letter pledging to oppose any measure to fund the government unless President Obama agrees to neuter his own healthcare law. Cruz is building his reputation on the right by taking on Republicans who don’t agree with that strategy. Ayotte initially signed it, but has since withdrawn her name.
This kind of self-directed gamesmanship, perhaps more pronounced in the House than in the Senate, is part of the reason the party keeps lurching rightward — driving out moderates, making stars of controversial radicals, and at times throwing safe seats to the Democratic Party. The question is, can that dynamic hold without splintering the party in a more consequential way.
David Karol is a professor at the University of Maryland who studies factional politics in the United States.
In his view, the internal divisions of a congressional majority (or even a large Senate minority) are to be expected. But there’s something new about the intensity of the division in the modern GOP.
“Moderate-extreme division isn’t new,” Karol explains. “But people on the extreme are more extreme now than they were. There was a time when we weren’t going to shut down the government, impeach the president, that if you do anything with the president you weren’t radioactive. Now, doing anything collaborative, anything across the aisle, means you’re suspect, courting a primary challenge. That atmosphere did not exist to the same degree.”
Karol doesn’t think what we’re seeing now will result in mass defections or the emergence of a third party. But it suggests than the realignment that drove more moderate GOP senators like Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe from the party, and that has pitted mainstream Republicans against conservative challengers in immensely harmful primaries, is still ongoing.