In an appearance likely to provide fodder for millions of Tweets analyzing every word, facial expression and nuance of body language, President Trump will hold a rally with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (formerly known as “Lyin’ Ted”) in Houston on Monday night.
Trump’s visit to Texas is aimed at revving up Republican enthusiasm in a race where Cruz, facing a stronger-than-expected challenge from Rep. Beto O’Rourke, has openly fretted that he could lose if conservatives don’t show up to vote in a potential Democratic wave election. A recent CNN poll found Cruz leading O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman from El Paso, by 7 points — a too-close-for-comfort margin in a deeply red conservative state where no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.
But the president’s visit is also likely to invoke memories of the bitter 2016 primary fight between Cruz and Trump, one of the ugliest campaigns in recent memory, marked by the kind of deeply personal insults rarely seen on the political stage.
Two years later, Cruz has remade himself into a close ally of Trump as he seeks a second term. But his alliance of convenience has come under scrutiny from voters who have questioned whether he and Trump really are as close as he claims and what his obsequiousness has done for Texas. And some have wondered why Cruz would align himself so closely with someone who still shows flashes of their not-yet-buried animosity.
Few in Texas, or anywhere really, have forgotten the invectives traded by Trump and the man he called “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” during the 2016 campaign. “You have to spell it right,” Trump thundered at a rally in April 2016. “It’s L-Y-I-N apostrophe Ted.”
Trump attacked Cruz for lying about his record, calling him the “single biggest liar” he’d ever met. He circulated tweets meant to insult Cruz’s wife’s looks and infamously impliedthat the senator’s father had been involved in the JFK assassination. The president has never publicly apologized for or recanted those remarks.
And Cruz, who slammed Trump as a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral” and a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen,” has repeatedly declined the opportunity to take his own words back, although he did write a fawning tribute to Trump’s political skills in Time magazine.
When Cruz refused to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention, later citing the insults to his wife and father, even his own supporters booed him. At a breakfast for the Texas delegation the next morning, people stood and angrily denounced Cruz as petty and unforgiving. “Get over it, Ted!” a man in a giant cowboy hat yelled at the senator, who looked pained. But Cruz stood his ground, insisting he would not roll over like a “servile puppy dog” to a man who had so crudely insulted his family.
Unsurprisingly, Trump lashed back, using his first public appearance as the official Republican nominee to rail at Cruz, suggesting that the Texas senator had “ruined his political career.”
“You know, he’ll come and endorse over the next little while … because he has no choice,” Trump declared. “But I don’t want his endorsement. What difference does it make? I don’t want his endorsement. Ted, stay home, relax, enjoy yourself.”
Two months later, amid pressure from GOP allies, Cruz did endorse Trump, saying he was honoring his promise to back the eventual Republican nominee and wanted to do anything to stop Hillary Clinton.
When Trump won the White House, Cruz explained last month, he faced “a choice” between being bitter or “doing the job I was elected to do.” “Yes, I could have chosen to make it about myself, to be selfish, and say, ‘You know what, my feelings are hurt so I am going to take my marbles and go home,’ but I think that would have been not doing the job I was elected to,” Cruz said at a Sept. 25 debate when asked to respond to voters who believe his toadying to Trump has cost him his “dignity.”
Early in his presidency, Trump hosted Cruz and his wife at the White House for dinner. And in a subsequent appearance before the National Rifle Association, he gave Cruz a shout-out, describing him as someone he “liked, didn’t like and now like a lot again.” “Sen. Ted Cruz,” he said, “like, dislike, like.”
And while Cruz has lately touted himself as someone who has the president’s ear, Trump doesn’t always seem to be listening. Over the summer, in the midst of controversy over a Trump administration policy that separated migrant children from their illegal immigrant parents when they were detained on the border, Cruz introduced legislation that would keep immigrant families together but double the number of immigration judges, bringing the total to 750, to speed up asylum requests.
But Trump shot down Cruz’s bill in a rambling speech in which he called the proposal “crazy” and exaggerated what exactly it would do. He suggested the Texas senator had proposed hiring “five or six thousand more judges.” Asked a few days later about Trump’s maneuver and working with a president who often behaved more like a frenemy, Cruz pointedly sidestepped the question.
As he has campaigned across the state, Cruz has often been trailed by a truck paid for by Democratic supporters of O’Rourke featuring one of Trump’s famous Twitter disses of Cruz: “Why would the people of Texas support Ted Cruz when he has accomplished absolutely nothing for them. He is another all talk, no action pol!” Trump tweeted in February 2016.
And last week, O’Rourke, angered by Cruz’s attacks on his record, invoked Trump’s nickname for his rival in their final debate. “Senator Cruz is not going to be honest with you,” O’Rourke declared. “He’s going to make up positions and votes that I’ve never held or taken. He’s dishonest. That’s why the president called him ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ and that’s why the nickname stuck. Because it’s true.”
Cruz has repeatedly declined to say whether Trump has ever apologized to him — or vice versa. And in the final weeks of the campaign, he has shifted the framing of his reelection campaign to tie his political fate more explicitly to Trump’s, describing the election as a referendum on the president in hopes of bolstering turnout among GOP voters who, polls suggest, trail Democrats in enthusiasm.
In recent days, Cruz has repeatedly reminded voters that O’Rourke has said he would vote to impeach President Trump — suggesting that it would spark political chaos and gridlock even worse than what was seen during the recent efforts to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In the last week, Cruz said his rival, if elected, would play a central role in efforts to impeach Trump, leading to “two years of a partisan circus and a witch hunt on the president” and “utter chaos.”
On Saturday, as he hit the road for a series of stops with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Cruz got even more colorful with his attack, suggesting impeachment could turn Washington into “Max Mad Beyond Thunderdome with Beto in the Tina Turner role” and adding, “We don’t need a big baby-faced guy with a chainsaw.”
But the O’Rourke campaign hopes Trump’s appearance in Texas will drive up enthusiasm among Democrats. Besides Cruz, a number of Republican congressional incumbents in the state are facing tougher-than-expected reelection campaigns, in part because of anger toward Trump. That includes GOP Rep. John Culberson, a nine-term House member who represents the Houston area. He announced Friday that he would skip Monday’s rally.