WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz's senior thesis at Princeton, a study on the limits of federal power, came back with a C+. The national debate champion must have been shocked — until he turned the page.
He actually earned an A.
"I just wanted him to know what the rest of the world felt like," laughed professor Robert P. George, a prominent social conservative who considers Cruz one of the brightest students he has seen in three decades of teaching. George was surprised Cruz entered politics, thinking he would end up a law professor. "But I'm not surprised at how aggressive and determined he is and willing to shake things up. He's not afraid of conflict."
That has been abundantly clear in the nine months Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, has been in Washington, waging war against big government, decorum and often his own Republican Party. It climaxed this week with his 21-hour stand on the Senate floor over the budget bill that would defund Obamacare. Cruz's showy tactics have made him the most polarizing figure in Washington and the leader of the grass roots conservative movement. A poll released Friday showed Cruz, 42, jumping to the front of a hypothetical 2016 GOP presidential field.
"He has endeared himself to an incredible amount of people," said former Florida Rep. Allen West, whose short, contentious career matched Cruz's intensity. "The conservative base has been looking for someone who stands up."
Even in a losing effort. On Friday, the Senate rejected the Republican-controlled House budget plan that would keep the government running but strip health care funding. "I remain confident, hopeful and optimistic the House will stand their ground, will continue the fight, which means this issue is coming back to the Senate," said Cruz, who had already begun lobbying House Republicans.
Cruz's brand of ideological purity and confrontational style comes at same time the GOP is struggling to expand its base, worrying some Republicans.
"It's, 'Let's target the apostates in our midst and then by virtue of being this purified conservative party, we'll draw in massive numbers of new support,' " said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the past three Republican administrations. "My hunch is Cruz will flame out. But right now he's certainly catapulted himself to the top rank of recognizable Republicans."
Cruz was never supposed to make it here. Like Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida's 2010 election against Charlie Crist, Cruz was a long-shot in the race to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. But a tireless campaign and tea party backing helped him defeat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the establishment favorite.
Cruz has a compelling backstory. His father fled Cuba in 1957 and landed in Texas with nothing (or $100 sewn in his underwear, as Cruz tells the story) to make a better life. The elder Cruz and his wife moved to Canada where their son was born Dec. 22, 1970. By virtue of his American-born mother, Cruz considers himself a natural born citizen and eligible to run for president.
The family returned to Texas in 1974. As a teen Cruz joined a free-market group in Houston, studying economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He traveled to Rotary Clubs reciting the Constitution.
"It was transformational," Cruz told the New Yorker. "The two strongest influences on my life were that experience and the personal experience of my family's story and my father's flight from Cuba."
He worked his way through Princeton, went to Harvard Law and became the first Hispanic clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. Cruz and his wife, now a Goldman Sachs executive, were dispatched to Florida during the 2000 recount on behalf of George W. Bush's campaign.
In 2003, Cruz became the Texas solicitor general and over five years argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In his Senate office he keeps a painting of him giving his first argument at age 32. "It is helpful," he recently told a reporter for GQ, "for keeping one grounded." In truth, Cruz has a bragging streak that has irritated some people around him.
On the night of the 2012 general election in Texas, Cruz declared that if President Barack Obama did not reach across the aisle, "I will spend every waking moment working to lead the fight to stop him."
Lost on few is that Cruz's uncompromising politics have helped make it more difficult to find common ground. Cruz failed to sway the Senate on Friday, but his stand has emboldened rank-and-file House members to dig in, raising the possibility of a government shutdown many in the GOP fear they will be blamed for.
The tension spilled onto the Senate floor Thursday when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., accused Cruz of delaying a vote for Friday so he and a handful of allies could put on a "show" intended to stir up activists and please outside conservative groups. "I didn't go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count," Corker said earlier on Twitter, referring to the Democratic advantage.
Cruz has been warring with Republicans since joining the Senate. Sen. John McCain labeled him and a small band of allies "wacko birds" for their tactics. He rebuked Cruz for aggressive questioning of Chuck Hagel during his confirmation process as defense secretary.
But the criticism has only burnished Cruz's anti-establishment credentials and helped his fundraising. His 21-hour, 19-minute speech this week was as much a rant on Obamacare as an indictment of clubby Washington.
"He's making a lot of Republicans uncomfortable because people are calling their offices and saying, 'Why don't you act more like Ted Cruz?' " said Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which has rallied grass roots support around Cruz in the Obamacare fight.
George, the Princeton professor, said Cruz has demonstrated the character of standing on his beliefs.
"What's going on with Ted is not so much that he's establishing himself as the most important Republican," he said, "It's, 'Damn it, are we going to stand for something or are we not?' If you stand for something you have to find a way to make that clear, to draw attention to that fact."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]