Tea Party groups once had their hopes on Sen. Marco Rubio to carry the torch in the Beltway for conservatism.
But his star faded fast among his base after he played a central role in drafting a bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate that would, among other things, tighten enforcement and provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
They saw him as a turncoat for supporting this approach, which they say would hurt Americans by giving them competition for jobs and reward lawbreakers by giving them amnesty.
But as the Florida Republican's glow dimmed this year, another lawmaker's star rose. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's high-profile condemnation of President Obama's health care plan – capped by a 21-hour marathon speech on the Senate floor Wednesday that infuriated some in his own party – drew praise from Tea Party groups and other conservatives who wanted someone to stand up to status-quo Washington.
“This is a galvanizing event,” said FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, according to the Dallas Morning News.
“Nothing has happened this week outside the norm. These are the rules of the Senate that allows a senator to stand up on the floor and to speak until they don’t want to give the floor up.”
FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group and major supporter of Cruz, has vowed to see to it that any lawmaker who allowed the vote for the health care plan to proceed Friday would pay for it later.
When U.S. Sen. John Cornyn refused to join Cruz in his mission to defund President Obama's health care reform plan, he sparked the wrath of Tea Party groups.
Cruz is concerned that a House budget plan that would keep the government funded, avoid a shutdown, but not fund the health care plan will be at risk in the Democrat-controlled Senate of having the defunding provision stripped.
Cornyn joined other Republicans who oppose risking a government shutdown and have expressed their disapproval of Cruz’s aggressive moves to fight the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Bob Corker accused Cruz of launching the 21-hour marathon speech to grandstand and pander to conservatives.
“You want the American people and the outside groups that you’ve been in contact with to be able to watch us tomorrow,” said Corker, a Tennessee Republican, on the Senate floor, according to published reports. “The reason we’re waiting is that y’all have sent out releases and emails and you want everybody to be able to watch. And it just doesn’t seem to me that that’s in our nation’s interest.”
And in a reference to Cruz, Cornyn said that merits of policies – not political calculations – influenced how he made decisions, said The Dallas Morning News.
Supporters of the Affordable Care Act say that it will give the millions of Americans who lack health coverage a chance to be insured and get access to health care. Cruz, as well as some opponents of the plan, say it will not improve health care and may prompt employers to cut back workers' hours or fire them if they're forced to participate in the plan.
Rubio often found himself under attack this year by Tea Party groups and other conservatives; some even staged protests outside his offices in Florida, accusing him of being a turncoat.
They said that Rubio had abandoned conservative principles.
After the Senate passed the immigration bill in June, Rubio turned his attention to Obama's health care plan and other White House policies he opposes.
On Thursday, for instance, Rubio defended the fight against the Affordable Care Act in an interview with Fox.
“The truth is, this isn’t about shutting down the government. This is about shutting down Obamacare,” he said. “The people who are trying to make it, who are trying to start a business, or if you’re working full time and now are being moved to part time, or if you’re working part time and now you’re losing your hours, these are the people that are really going to be hurt by this. And it isn’t fair. It’s wrong.”
He also defended Cruz, denying he was engaging in theatrics — his marathon speech, he said, was meant to draw attention to the flaws of the Affordable Care Act.
“Nothing has happened this week outside the norm. These are the rules of the Senate that allows a senator to stand up on the floor and to speak until they don’t want to give the floor up,” he said.
A Washington Post story noted: "Rubio, who spoke on the floor three times during Cruz’s marathon talk, appeared particularly eager to shore up his credentials with the Tea Party... In addition to railing against Obama’s health care law, he blocked the nomination of a gay black judge from Miami to the federal court, which some interpreted as a nod to social conservatives."
Sal Russo, a co-founder of the Tea Party Express, said his group still supports Rubio and views him as a viable presidential candidate in 2016. Cruz would be too if he chose to run, he said.
“I think Marco Rubio still has great respect and admiration,” he said, adding that Tea Party groups hold diverse views on various subjects, though they all generally oppose big government, and U.S. tax policies.
“[Ted Cruz] is clearly emerging as a leader,” Russo said. “Ted didn’t have a good chance of winning [regarding the health care vote], but he fought the good fight. You might not win votes, but you can win the hearts and minds of Americans.”
“What Ted does is put the issue out there,” he said.
Cruz’s high-profile condemnation of Obama’s health care plan, some experts say, may boost what some have said is the Tea Party’s fading influence.
A recent Gallup Poll showed that adults nationwide who said they supported the Tea Party fell to 22 percent from 32 percent in 2010. Among Republicans, the drop went to 38 percent from 65 percent in the same period, among Independents it fell to 25 percent from 30 percent, and among Democrats it went to 6 percent from 8 percent.
Cruz’s firm opposition to the health care plan is energizing Texas’ grassroots conservatives that helped him rise from electoral longshot to national star. It may ultimately prove a boon for other Tea Party-backed candidates waiting to follow in his footsteps.
While no one is expecting an army of Cruz clones, he may be a model for a certain type of confrontational conservatism back home.
Implications of that would stretch far beyond its own borders since Texas is the nation's richest GOP donor state. It also has repeatedly been a cradle for Republican presidential candidates — perhaps even Cruz himself in 2016.
“This speech wasn't just historic - what Ted Cruz did was epic,” said Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer Kremer in a statement. “He made good on his promises and displayed courage rarely seen in modern politics. Cruz's commitment to conservative principles is why he is one of the leading conservative voices in America today.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.