Ted Cruz might have lost points with Republican leaders after his high-profile fight with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But it could benefit him with Republican voters.
Even before the rise of Donald Trump, the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was a bull market for Washington-bashing that in past years might have been deemed excessive.
Trump, the bombastic New York billionaire, skyrocketed to the top of early GOP primary polls, offering a cathartic voice to conservative voters' frustrations with government and GOP leadership in Washington with spitfire rhetoric that has eclipsed that of even the most ardent anti-establishment candidates. That might explain Cruz's decision over the weekend to escalate his feud with McConnell by calling him a liar.
The Texan was taken to the woodshed on the Senate floor for the breach of decorum, especially by those who found his charge against McConnell dubious. But Republican operatives in the early 2016 nominating states say it was a savvy move to break through the din in a media environment dominated by Trump and political atmosphere that is virulently anti-Washington. Whether this strategy wins Cruz the nomination is another matter.
"Personal attacks against Mitch McConnell, well, nobody cares about Mitch McConnell or his feelings," said David Carney, a Republican strategist from New Hampshire. "The problem comes from being just negative. When candidates talk about how screwed up [Washington] is, they need a solution to fix it."
In a Friday floor speech, Cruz accused McConnell of "flat-out" lying about whether he had agreed to allow a vote on legislation to extend the life of the Export-Import Bank. Many conservatives oppose the government entity, which ostensibly subsidizes corporations who have to compete for business against foreign firms who receive subsidies from their governments to hold down costs and increase their competitiveness.
McConnell and supporters of the bank, which could die because of insufficient support in the GOP-controlled House, have made no secret of their plans to hold a vote on the measure in the Senate before August. Cruz insists that McConnell assured him otherwise. What was striking about the claim is that he made it on the Senate floor, a venue off limits for disparaging fellow members, according to internal chamber rules of conduct.
"I told my staff, the majority leader looked me in the eye, and looked 54 Republicans in the eye," Cruz said. "We now know that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment, that he is willing to say things that he knows are false."
Inside the Beltway, Republicans interpreted Cruz's tirade as an act of desperation for a presidential contender who, in the words of one GOP lobbyist supporting a rival candidate, "is clearly struggling to be visible in the wake of the Donald."
The conventional wisdom is that Trump's candidacy hurts Cruz the most, as the two candidates are competing for Republican base voters who are particularly angry with the GOP establishment and staunch opponents of illegal immigration. Indeed, Trump as of late Monday was in first place in the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls gauging the sentiment of Republican primary voters, with 18.2 percent, and Cruz was in seventh place with 5.7 percent.
Republican campaign operatives not enamored of Cruz or his tactics, including some backing other 2016'ers, acknowledged the strategic value of the senator's attack on McConnell. Most voters don't know enough about what's happening on Capitol Hill to know the veracity of Cruz' attack on McConnell. What many do know is that they're disgusted with Washington, disappointed with the nation's political leaders and hungry for a presidential candidate who vows to shake things up.
"The Cruz hit on McConnell looked smart to me. He's the only one saying it, so it's guaranteed to generate some coverage. And with Trump sucking up all of the oxygen it takes something bold to cut through," a Republican consultant said. "The fact that a lot of hard core conservatives share his views, even if theirs are formed by talk radio half-truths, makes it even more effective."
The long-term impact of Cruz' tactics remain unclear, however, and are possibly detrimental.
The Republican field is crowded, with up to half dozen candidates competing for the party's wing of Tea Partiers, evangelicals and committed conservatives. If few of them drop out, Cruz and the rest of them could divide up the base vote, and allow one of the more mainstream Republicans to come out on top, as has happened historically in GOP primaries.
The bigger risk for Cruz is that he could end up defined as someone who picks fights without a purpose or plan to accomplish anything. Voters want him to fight; taking on the party establishment and political assumptions of what is possible strikes the right cord. But it's not enough. Voters want action in the form of policies and leadership that will solve problems. Cruz has yet to prove that he can do both, some Republicans say.
"Can Cruz make it look non-Quixotic? The jury is still out," Rick Wilson, a Florida-based media consultant, said.
The Cruz campaign declined to comment for this story. But supporter Saul Anuzis, a GOP insider from Michigan, dismissed any suggestion that the senator was pigeonholing himself as a agitator who isn't capable of governing.
"Cruz's primary argument is that many candidates say the right things, while few have actually done it. This is his 'show me' moment."
Disclosure: The author's wife works as an adviser to Scott Walker.