Sen.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas is a bright young Hispanic star who will be sworn in this week in Washington. The Republican Party nationally hopes Cruz will be part of the solution to its growing problem luring Hispanic voters.
Almost nobody had heard of Cruz when he began his campaign for the U.S. Senate. But when he stepped in front of a microphone, he could light up a room in a way that made the other Republican candidates seem lifeless.
"We're here to talk about politics," Cruz told a group of West Texas Republican women on the campaign trail. "If you go back to the ancient Greek, politics had two parts: 'poly' meaning many and 'tics' meaning blood-sucking parasites."
After laughter and applause, he continued: "Look, we're all tired of empty talk. I mean, what's frustrating as a voter is you see candidate after candidate that talks a good game, says they're going to cut our taxes, says they're going to stand for principle, and then they go to Washington and they turn into a spineless jellyfish."
Cruz had been speaking for just 40 seconds, but the West Texas women were nodding and laughing and saying "Amen." Cruz paced in front of them with a wireless microphone like a Cuban Tony Robbins — young, smart, good looking, intense, no notes, no teleprompter, his words and ideas flowing seamlessly.
He spent less time attacking President Obama than what he calls the "sold-out Republican establishment." He campaigned as a Tea Party true believer, calling to his followers to march with him to the barricades.
"From Ed Meese to Phyllis Schlafly to Dr. James Dobson to the five strongest conservatives in the U.S. Senate — Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Pat Toomey and Tom Coburn — every one of them is united behind this campaign," he told the crowd. "If conservatives continue to unite — and I ask for your help — we're going to win this race, and when we win this race Texas will lead the fight."
With no money, having never run for office, Cruz crushed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst by 14 percentage points in the Republican Senate primary. Then he sailed to victory by an even bigger margin in the general election.
In the 1950s, Cruz's father fought beside Fidel Castro in Cuba but became so disenchanted with the revolution's aftermath that he became a staunch conservative after moving to the United States. His son has followed his father's footsteps, becoming a strict constitutionalist.
"Ted Cruz is someone who believes firmly in the United States Constitution and what it was intended to achieve," says Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who was Cruz's boss and remains a good friend. "He was able to translate that into a unifying campaign across the state. Unifying those who believe that America has lost its way and bringing along those who see a brighter future for tomorrow. "
Many in the GOP hope Cruz will be able to bring more Latino voters into their column. But he takes a Tea Party hard line on immigration. He's for bigger border walls patrolled by drones from above and is against the Dream Act. In the general election, Cruz did about as well as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did with Texas Hispanic voters — which is to say, not very well.
"I think he's got time to think about this and to figure it out," says Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune. "He doesn't have to stand for election, so he can experiment. He's got a period here where he can figure out where he fits in the Washington spectrum, where he fits in the national Republican Party and how the Hispanic politics work. But I think he's clearly in place, if it develops right, to become a national player."
If there's one thing political opponents have learned about Cruz, it's that you underestimate him at your own peril.