Explaining the Senate's growing conservative Latino caucus

A Ted Cruz win in November gives the Tea Party five supporters in the Senate

August 4, 2012

When Ted Cruz, the U.S. senate GOP nominee, wins in November — and it will be a helluva a scandal if he doesn't — the world’s greatest deliberative body will have three Latino senators. And two of them will be Republican.

Given the Democratic Party’s much greater civil rights record and its much more traditionally muscular grassroots efforts, there’s something off about those optics. So how did that happen?

Robert Menéndez, the Latino Democratic senator from New Jersey, rose up the old fashioned way, through a close and often controversial mentorship with an older pol, former Union City Mayor William Musto (against whom Menéndez eventually testified). Menéndez worked his way up steadily, from school board member to mayor, to state senator to U.S. congressman to U.S. senator.

Marco Rubio, the incumbent Republican senator from Florida, appeared to be following the same route as Menéndez when he began his political career. He interned for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the powerful South Florida Cuban-American congresswoman, and got close to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Rubio did stints in local government, both as a city commissioner and as a state legislator. From 2007 to 2009, he served as the first Hispanic and the youngest Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

But Rubio’s traditional trajectory was forever altered when he chose to challenge Charlie Crist, his party’s governor, for an open U.S. Senate slot. Had Rubio’s run followed the usual course, he would have gained points for his quixotic turn while the party’s preferred candidate and its establishment sailed on to victory, letting Rubio know who was boss.

But Rubio, who’d been more moderate in his state career than his senate term would so far suggest, took a right turn and sought and received a strong Tea Party endorsement.

Sure, Crist made a million mistakes, the whole race was a disaster, but could Rubio have won without the Tea Party? Given that he triumphed with less than half the vote, it’s unlikely that Rubio would have had the troops on the ground — especially in northern and central Florida — to pull it off. In fact, he won all but four counties in the state thanks to the Tea Party’s grassroots efforts.

And now comes Ted Cruz, the Texas Tea Party senate candidate who shatters the mold completely. Contrary to both Menéndez and Rubio, Cruz has not climbed up through the electoral process. Instead, Cruz has participated in government only through appointed office, plying his legal skills. If he takes the prize in November, it will be his first elected office. And unlike the other two, who play to their ethnic bases — Menéndez to the Cuban-American and other ethnic communities in Union City, and Rubio to the Cubans and other Latinos in South Florida — Cruz emphasizes the up-by-bootstraps parts of his personal narrative rather than its ethnic component.

Perhaps more significantly, and contrary to Rubio, who had to pivot from more moderate views once the Tea Party came on board, Cruz was defending the Tea Party’s favorite issues — the Ten Commandments on government property, state’s rights, traditional marriage — long before the Tea Party even existed. In his case, the fit is absolutely organic and perfect.

Cruz and the Tea Party made headlines the last few days of the campaign, when Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin showed up to rally. But the Tea Party had been working phone banks, registering voters and working door to door for Cruz from the start.

With the Cruz campaign (and the Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin), the Tea Party not only proved that it was far from moribund, but that it can deliver down on the ground, in the thick of the nitty gritty — scraping up votes one by one the way only the Democrats used to go at it.

The Cruz win will give the Tea Party — not just the Republicans — a heck of a caucus in the senate: DeMint, Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Utah’s Mike Lee. It’s only a handful of votes but it’s four more uncompromising, unbending right-wingers than they had in 2008.