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Mr. Unpopular

Ted Cruz’s Uncoolness Is His Secret Weapon

Maybe it’s time to stop making fun of the Texas senator and start taking him seriously.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Earlier this month, Dallas-area Democratic congressman and former professional football player Colin Allred announced his plan to run against Ted Cruz and replace him as Texas’s junior senator, prompting the sexennial ritual of Democrats assuring each other that Ted Cruz can be beat.Ted Cruz is beatable”—this very phrase is what Allred’s campaign picked as the first sponsored return when you google Allred’s name! But is it true? I can pull out the charts showing Texas’s drift leftward in the city centers to buttress this claim. Afterward, I can show you the various voter suppression tactics that the Republican legislature has put in place to stymie that drift. But, let’s face it: I think Ted Cruz seems beatable to many of us because, well … he is Ted Cruz.

Allred’s early strategy seems to acknowledge this. His website is heavy on biography and light on policy, with two points that demand freelance campaign memes: Allred was a star Texas college player with a respectable NFL career, and Ted Cruz has the physical grace of a tardigrade. Allred is also a sixth-generation Texan, and Ted Cruz is, famously, from Canada. As a bonus, Allred has never been suspected of being the Zodiac Killer.

But if the Beto O’Rourke campaign against Cruz proved anything, it’s that Democrats probably need a strategy beyond “Look at this asshole”—enormous asshole though Cruz may be.

Look, I know how fun it is to mock Ted Cruz. It is my own personal brand. And why not mock him, right? He is, by literally all reports, a terrible person. The thing is, he’s also an enabler of fascism, a Christian supremacist, and gun lobby propagandist. Yet his political positions are not usually what make him the delicious target that he is; what is hilariously remarkable about Ted Cruz is how personally radioactive he is.

It’s perversely fascinating, really, how unlikeable he is and, indeed, one of the fun things about googling, “Why is Ted Cruz so unlikable?” is the energy that people put into explaining the phenomenon of his despicableness, which goes far beyond his comparatively uninterrogated political beliefs. This ranges from his bizarrely blatant toadying to power (see: Trump) and his inability to read the room on a grand scale (heading to Cancun while his constituents froze) to more esoteric inquiries: What makes his face so punchable? What makes his voice so grating?

Nevertheless, Cruz’s ineffable whatever-it-is—I don’t know, what’s the opposite of charm?—makes him loathed across the political spectrum. Famously, Lindsey Graham joked that if you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, no jury of his peers would convict. (Graham has since apologized for this, more’s the pity.) In my own experience, Ted Cruz is the only politician I’ve ever written about for whom members of his own party reached out proactively to me—right out of the blue!—to offer their negative opinions. They still stayed off the record, I’m sorry to say. Being willing to bad-mouth Ted Cruz and being willing to have other people know you’d talk to a reporter about him are two different things. Why did they talk to me at all? Because they just needed to let it out? Or, as I suspect, there’s something primally pleasing about piling on someone whose very existence somehow seems to displease the gods.

Cruz’s legion of critics have a long list of specific actions by Ted that left a bad taste in their mouth. Prior to the Trump era, you heard about his grandstanding not-a-filibuster; that time he broke the unwritten rule of not criticizing other senators on the chamber floor and called Mitch McConnell a liar (this is actually one reason to like Ted Cruz). Then he ran against Trump and handled the whole thing so badly he made his reputation worse on both sides of the aisle: He pissed off Trump Republicans for not explicitly endorsing Trump when given a chance to in prime time; he fell in the esteem of anti-Trump folks when he raced from that quasi-principled position to a quisling duckwalk of shame by Trump’s side.

In our hearts, I think we all know that it wasn’t his political positions that made him seem vulnerable to the challenge from Beto O’Rourke; there are plenty of candidate matchups that pit a dynamic, with-it challenger against a far-right, square conservative. These arrangements are increasingly just how the Democratic National Committee raises money. Indeed, Allred raised $2 million the day he announced.

O’Rourke probably got closer than anyone in a similarly unwinnable race so far (looking at you, Jaime Harrison). It’s tempting to use O’Rourke’s poor showing against Abbott last year as more proof of Cruz’s singular distastefulness, but that margin is also an indication that the GOP is getting even better at using voter suppression to make sure unpopular candidates don’t lose.

Still, I think a lot about something a Cruz supporter said to me when complaining about the softball coverage Beto was getting in 2014 (and, let’s face it, softball much of it was): Of the two of them, who’d be the villain in a John Hughes movie? Not Ted Cruz, this person said. When I balked at that—Beto was in a punk band! He skateboards! (Yes, reader, some of that softball coverage may have been mine)—they scoffed, “Robert O’Rourke fucking rowed crew.”

From this perspective, you can see why Cruz has often leaned hard into his reputation as unlikeable, though he frames it as a matter of being an outsider going up against the elites. That’s bullshit, of course. The kernel of truth here is that Ted Cruz is an underdog, because he’s that terrible human being, Ted Cruz. Reminding you of how much everyone hates him is Cruz’s secret weapon. At some point we need to reckon with its power.

All this is to say, maybe voters who want to replace Cruz should look beyond Allred, who is, like O’Rourke, a handsome and popular jock. A shift in focus seems warranted: Cruz’s personality deficits are soft targets, and there’s an abundance of things to hate about the sum and substance of Cruz’s actual record. Maybe someone can just run on that?

The good news for Texans is there is someone whose most obvious contrasts with Cruz don’t stem from a high school yearbook’s senior class superlatives. Roland Gutierrez is a Texas state senator whose district encompasses the Uvalde school district. Sources say he is “very likely” to run; undoubtedly, should he step up, he will run on the issue that he’s been forcing the rest of the legislature to consider for two years: doing something about all these fucking guns. He has introduced over two dozen pieces of gun control legislation into the Texas Senate since the Uvalde shooting; he has stood with the families of the children killed there more times than I can count.

There is no footage of Gutierrez skateboarding or playing football, but I’m partial to this clip from April during which he snaps back at a Republican state senator in the middle of saying that an anti-drag bill is “about protecting children”: “We could talk about protecting children all day,” he says, “You haven’t done a whole lot.”

O’Rourke tried to make gun control his signature issue when running against Abbott last year; there’s video from that and, well, that ended like it did (an 11-point loss). But Gutierrez’s credibility on the issue is almost as deep as the grief of the families he won’t let his colleagues forget. If nothing else, a Gutierrez-Cruz race would be a reminder that it’s not enough to know that Cruz represents a threat; we also have to stop treating him as a joke.