Something's changed about Ted Cruz – and it’s not just the beard.
First, there was the common ground with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Then, there was the push for people to donate supplies to detained migrants at the border. Then, Cruz called out Tennessee for honoring a Confederate Army general with an ugly past.
Is the senator from Texas – the unapologetic conservative who ran for president in 2016 saying Republicans win by painting “in bold colors, not pale pastels”– making a conscious effort to expand his appeal beyond conservatives?
“I do think it’s intentional,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican consultant based in Austin who was active in the Tea Party movement.
Steinhauser said he thinks Cruz has “always believed in” these ideas and isn’t changing his stances, but is choosing to highlight them now because “he understands, like we all understand, that Texas is changing.” Cruz in 2018 faced a closer-than-expected re-election fight in Texas from then-Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost by just 2 points. Democrats are determined to eventually flip the state blue.
For his part, Cruz says advocating these positions is nothing new for him.
“The media caricature of me as a right-wing bomb-thrower has never been accurate,” Cruz said in a phone interview with Fox News. “I am conservative. I care deeply about conservative principles. I care deeply about the Constitution. And in each of these instances, I am working to advance policies that I have long defended, and long advocated for.”
On Capitol Hill this year, Cruz has turned heads with his outreach to progressive firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In May, he responded to a tweet from Ocasio-Cortez about lobbyists by saying: “Here’s something I don’t say often: on this point, I AGREE with @AOC. Indeed, I have long called for a LIFETIME BAN on former Members of Congress becoming lobbyists. The Swamp would hate it, but perhaps a chance for some bipartisan cooperation?”
A few months later, Cruz offered to team up with Ocasio-Cortez on another issue: making birth control available over the counter.
“Perhaps, in addition to the legislation we are already working on together to ban Members of Congress from becoming lobbyists, we can team up here as well,” Cruz tweeted. “A simple, clean bill making birth control available over the counter. Interested?”
Earlier this month, amid outcry from Democrats, Cruz expressed concern about the overcrowding at Department of Homeland Security shelters for migrants detained at the border. In a letter to DHS, Cruz said many Americans want to “provide more direct and tangible help” and “donate basic items such as diapers and toothbrushes to children in CBP custody.”
“But I understand that many of these organizations are currently having difficulties making donations because DHS and CBP currently lack procedures to accept their donations,” Cruz wrote. “I thus urge you to establish and publicize a process for accepting donations from charitable organizations, faith-based organizations and NGOs to aid individuals in CBP custody.”
Next, Cruz made waves by calling for Tennessee to change its law mandating an annual Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. Forrest, a Confederate general, was known for his involvement in the Ku Klux Klan.
“This is wrong,” Cruz tweeted. “Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general & delegate to the 1868 Democratic Convention. He was also a slave trader & 1st Grand Wizard of the KKK. Tennessee should not have an official day honoring him. Change the law.”
Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who signed the proclamation this year, has since said he wants to see the law changed.
As for his Twitter cooperation with Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz said, “I’ve always been willing to work with anybody: Republican, Democratic, Independent, Libertarian. Heck, I’ve joked I’d work with Martians if we’re advancing good and positive policies.”
Cruz said he has long supported banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists, having campaigned on it when he ran for president. He said the same is true for making birth control available over the counter. As for calling out Tennessee over Nathan Bedford Forrest, Cruz said: “I have a long history of taking on the KKK, who are repulsive, bigoted morons.”
“The principles and issues have remained constant,” he said.
Other Republicans deny Cruz’s statements are off-brand.
“He’s supported term limits and bans on members of Congress becoming lobbyists for his entire career,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican operative who runs a consulting group. “Partnering with AOC would give the idea bipartisan momentum.”
He added: “The KKK founder holiday in Tennessee is an issue of moral clarity and should not be a hard call. I am proud of him for taking that stand. He has also always celebrated nonprofits and charities as ways to help people outside of government. It’s pretty ridiculous that people can’t donate supplies when many of these detention centers are under-resourced.”
And just because Cruz has spoken out on issues that could appeal to a wider swath of voters doesn’t mean he isn’t taking stances geared toward conservatives.
This week, for example, Cruz reiterated his support for the so-called EL CHAPO Act, a bill he authored that would require any money seized by the U.S. government from the Mexican drug lord’s estate to be used for a border wall.
Others, like Steinhauser, see a change in what Cruz is choosing to talk about. Steinhauser said he is advising Republicans in Texas politics, “Don’t change your principles, don’t change your policy positions, but maybe lead with certain issues, change your tone a little bit, talk about certain things a little more, talk about other things a little less.”
“And I think he is doing the right thing,” he said of Cruz.