intelligencer chats

The Political Costs of Ted Cruz’s Cancún Vacation

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The aftermath of Texas’s catastrophic deep freeze last week — which likely caused dozens of deaths, cost the state billions of dollars, and made millions of people’s existence miserable for days — may hurt Texas Republicans, who have championed the idiosyncratic electrical grid that failed so badly. But nobody is on the hot seat more than Senator Ted Cruz, who decided to take off while his constituents were suffering. I spoke with national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about the fallout.

Ben: Ted Cruz’s misbegotten Cancún mini-vacation — which he took as a good portion of his state was freezing and without power or worse — prompted so much outrage that it seems like it has a good chance of sticking to him in a way that few political scandals do these days. Not that Cruz was exactly beloved before this, but do you think it will do him serious damage down the road? And if so, what would that look like for a guy who seems to love being hated?

Gabriel: It’s obviously really hard to tell right now, for a few reasons. First, as you hinted at, news moves quickly, and especially in recent years there’s been a real question about what kind of scandal even sticks at all. However, it remains to be seen how much the underlying shifts in politics that came with the Trump → Biden transition apply here, and so change that “new normal.” Second, the easiest way to gauge if this hurts Cruz is, of course, elections, and he’s not up for reelection until 2024. People generally have shorter memories than four years on low-stakes scandals (which is NOT what this is, more on that in a sec …).

Cruz is widely expected to run for president again in 2024, and of course this mess is likely to hurt him more with Texans than Americans at large. That has to do with another point, which is that Cruz has gotten elected, then reelected in Texas, and also got close to being the Republican nominee for president, all while having a pretty terrible reputation. Even his voters don’t like him, and this doesn’t seem likely to change that image much.

All that said, the reason I just don’t know is that this disaster really was unbelievably bad for millions of Texans, and the entire country was paying attention to it in a way that the country really hasn’t to any other similar disaster in recent years. And the unbelievable circumstances of his vacation (!) to Cancún (!!) just read as so brazen. So what’s more likely to happen is he’ll just have to keep answering for this at home for a while, which might have a long-term effect on his already bad image. There is, then, a chance that real opposition to him is galvanized.

But in a purely electoral sense, he might be lucky that Greg Abbott, the governor, is up for reelection first, in 2022. Beto O’Rourke, who has reemerged in the national eye due to his relief efforts in recent days, may challenge him, which would be quite a showdown.

Ben: After Cruz beat O’Rourke by only three points in 2018, some said that the closeness had less to do with either of the candidates than one might have thought, and more to do with rapidly shifting demographics in Texas. But then Trump won there quite easily, and the down-ballot races were massive disappointments for Democrats, too. Does this indicate that Cruz really is uniquely vulnerable? (With the giant caveat that yes, he won’t face voters for a long time.)

Gabriel: Right, the other thing that happened in 2018 was Abbott won reelection without breaking a sweat. All of the above is true, in other words. It is true that Texas is getting tighter — Trump won it by 5 percent, which is the closest the state has been in years, not only because of demographic change but because of a huge shift in the suburbs — but it’s also also true that no Democrat has been elected statewide there in decades. But it’s also also also true that Cruz is hated more than most and that O’Rourke was actually an incredibly effective candidate in 2018, even though his national reputation took a huge hit with his failed presidential run. And it’s also also also also true that Democrats down ballot were disappointed by their performance in Texas in 2020 — but that may be at least in part because of very, very high expectations.

Maybe this is all a long way of saying that, under the right circumstances, Texas can look purple. But that’s not (yet) its resting state. To put a slightly finer point on one piece of this, though: Cruz-O’Rourke was on the same statewide ballot as Abbott-Valdez in November 2018. Cruz won by less than 3 percent, Abbott won by 13. So CLEARLY candidates can matter.

Ben: You mentioned that Cruz is lucky Abbott is up for reelection first. Democrats in Texas have indeed been making plenty of political hay over the disaster — they’ve criticized the state’s deregulation of the power grid, and lambasted some top Republicans for blaming everything on wind power and the Green New Deal (which indeed makes no sense). Do you get the sense that the whole situation might put the state’s Republicans — who, as you said, dominate higher offices — on defense for a while, even into the midterms?

Gabriel: I said he might be lucky. Because who knows? If the last four years didn’t teach us not to assume X event will matter politically in Y weeks/months/years, nothing will. Republicans are on defense because they clearly are at fault here; no one reasonable really questions that. And there clearly could be a political reckoning over it. But it’s folly to predict a central theme of an election in two years, especially when so many races are so easily nationalized. I mean, think how dramatically different the world looked in November 2020 than we would’ve expected in February 2019. Hell, I remember predictions that the 2018 midterms would be a referendum on some government shutdown that happened early in the Trump years. I literally don’t remember any details about that shutdown now. Was there more than one? Who knows? This is a bigger deal, obviously. But reform timelines are different from political punishment ones.

The Political Costs of Ted Cruz’s Cancún Vacation