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Ted Cruz’s Shadow Presidential Campaign

He sure doesn’t want to be a senator anymore.
by Jim Swift
October 26, 2022
Ted Cruz’s Shadow Presidential Campaign
(Composite / Photos: Jim Swift / Kyle Rivas/GettyImages)

Montclair, Virginia
I’ve lived in this part of Northern Virginia for a few years, and every fall I drive by the Montclair Tabernacle Church of God and see the enormous haunted house attraction that the church hosts. It sounds bizarre, I know, but the church sees the intensely terrifying “Death Trail” as a tool of evangelism.

But on Monday night, I’m on the church grounds to hear another dynamic Christian figure strike the fear of God into me: Ted Cruz.

The Cruz-aligned Truth and Courage PAC has been putting on events for the Texas senator throughout the country, driving a decked-out, two-story bus on which fans can write whatever they want. On the surface, the goal is to help try to elect Republicans and take back Congress. In reality, though, the tour is Cruz’s shadow campaign for the presidency in 2024—aimed at boosting his profile among the Republican base, having various officeholders owe him favors, and getting everything ready for the possibility, however remote, that Donald Trump won’t run again and Cruz can try to snatch the nomination. Cruz’s 2016 campaign logo of a flame is cleverly incorporated into a new logo on the side of the bus, the face of a lion that looks vaguely like the bearded Cruz. But “Truth and Courage” hardly seem like the right words to describe a guy who spent four years abasing himself to stay relevant after Donald Trump lied about his loved ones.

Cruz is coming to Montclair to stump for Yesli Vega, a Prince William County supervisor and deputy sheriff. She’s running for Congress against Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic incumbent whose neighboring district is going away because of redistricting.

The church complex is ideal for such an event, although it’s unclear why a church, and not the nearby Prince William County Fairgrounds, was selected. Of course, there is the IRS regulation about nonprofits being political, but really only the pastor needs to avoid directly endorsing candidates. Senior pastor Brad Lewis zips through his invocation so this very partisan event at his church can begin:

We realize that we live in a day when the forces of darkness have tried to destroy the life of the unborn. A darkness that has attempted to steal the identities of our youth with perversion and gender confusion. A darkness that has tried to silence the word of truth spoken from pulpits across our nation. A darkness that has attempted to create a culture that is in direct opposition to the word of God. But Lord, we’re praying that righteousness once again will prevail in our nation.

So as the golden light of the setting sun falls on the reds and oranges and yellows of the colorful trees, I join the crowd in settling in to await the arrival of Senator Cruz.

While we wait for Ted’s bus to arrive, his father, Rafael Cruz—whom Trump accused of killing President John F. Kennedy—warms up the crowd, standing on the tractor trailer with hay bales, pumpkins, and, of course, American flags, that is being used as a dais:

Let me tell you how important 2022 is. If we lose this election, America is destroyed. There will not be a 2024. This is the line in the sand. And I’ll tell you, we cannot acquiesce.You know what I mean: Proverbs chapter 29, verse 2 says, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, people mourn.”

Cruz père keeps up the doom and gloom and stories about Communists and Marxists, but I start to tune him out because I don’t want to miss the grand entrance of the Truth and Courage bus.

And it is a very nice bus. That much is clear when it pulls up with its entourage of police escorts and unmarked SUVs. Among other amenities, the bus has a party deck with televisions where the VIPs roll in watching—who else?—Tucker Carlson, who was busy calling the Democratic party a “child sacrifice cult” on that night’s show.

To make the switch from a biblical conspiratorial tone to more conventional politicking, Rep. Chip Roy—Ted Cruz’s former chief of staff and a frequent giver of advice to the Trump White House after the 2020 election—speaks next. Roy launches into a stump speech I have heard snippets of thanks to the internet. The Texas congressman does some product placement for Bucc-ee’s, the same Texas gas-station chain at which Cruz filmed a hokey video making it seem he was actually going on this bus tour all across this great land.

But unlike John McCain, who we know really rode his Straight Talk Express bus because there were journalists on the bus, Cruz’s riding of the Truth and Courage bus is more of a modern version: last-mile delivery for the sake of optics.

Anyway, Roy hits all his marks: fentanyl, open borders, cartels, China, and gender identity. “I’m going to throw my body in front of the train in Washington over these bad bills and big spending bills,” Roy promises.

Rep. Chip Roy. (Photo by Jim Swift / The Bulwark)

Up next is the belle of the ball, Yesli Vega, who opens with this:

This is a movement that is inspired, empowered by you, the people of the 7th District. This is the day that the Lord has made. Amen? [Crowd response: “Amen.”] And there’s no better place than to be in the house of the Lord. Yes, Yes. We’re not inside, but this is still the house of the Lord. Yes ma’am.

I was wondering earlier if some people would wear FJB (you know what it means) hats to a church, and the answer is yes, 100 percent yes. Or t-shirts of Joe Biden as a jack-o-lantern. To each his own.

Having lone-wolfed this event, I brought my ancient Canon Rebel camera to try and get some shots, but the lighting is difficult, I’m an amateur, and photographing Yesli Vega in dark lighting up close is difficult—because she is a very, very active campaign speaker. Unlike polished public speakers, who know to pause for applause lines, Vega just keeps plunging forward. Her speech has a lot of energy, and it riles up the crowd.

Vega brings her young family up on stage, and later, her parents, who are immigrants from El Salvador. There is much applause, and Vega starts to tear up.

And you may be asking yourself why I get emotional? How can you not? How can you not? When you look at what is at stake, this election cycle, a crumbling economy, inflation at an all time high, a humanitarian crisis on the southern border, and a deliberate attempt to remove parents from their children’s lives.

In case you’re confused, she’s talking about parental rights in education, not using law enforcement to physically remove parents from their children’s lives.

Congressional candidate Yesli Vega. (Photo by Jim Swift / The Bulwark)

Then Vega delivers a line to much applause that accidentally reveals the GOP playbook for what it is:

Members of the media ask all the time: You talk about having solutions. How are you gonna fix the economy? How are you gonna fix the border crisis? How are you gonna get crime down? What’s your strategy? It’s simple: Do the complete opposite of what Abigail Spanberger has been doing.

Does this apply to everything? Vote against Ukraine aid? Vote against the CHIPS Act? Spanberger voted against Pelosi for Speaker, twice. Does this mean Yesli Vega would vote for Pelosi for Speaker? Obviously not, but this line is clumsy and dumb because it’s rear-facing and most of these votes will never be recreated.

Up next was Virginia’s governor, Glenn Youngkin, sporting his trademark red sweater vest. Many in the crowd (and all of Youngkin’s staff) are sporting similar sweater vests with the number 74 on them, as Youngkin is the 74th governor of the commonwealth. Youngkin encourages people to wear hats, t-shirts, red vests, and apply bumper stickers for the next two weeks to let people know where they stand.

Youngkin’s speech is comparatively muted, and certainly less acerbic than the others, which fits with the brand he’s still trying to maintain (minus campaigning for election deniers). He intones:

It is time to inject that exact same common sense into our national Capitol. And there is a room with the sign “common sense” on it. And Yesli Vega is going there to occupy it.

A weirdly nonsensical image (a “common sense” room?). But whatever.

Youngkin is not known for his dynamism, and his remarks sort of lull the crowd. If courtesy didn’t dictate that the governor be invited to a rally of this sort, there would be something strange about his presence—after all, Youngkin is a foe for Cruz in the 2024 presidential primary process that will start as soon as the midterm elections are over.

Finally, it’s time for the man from the bus, Mr. Truth and Courage himself. Ted Cruz comes running out to give people in the front row high fives before jubilantly jumping on the trailer and calling out the opening campaign line he always uses for red states: “God bless, God bless the Commonwealth of Virginia.” (Not that he spends much time campaigning in blue states, but I would pay to hear him say “God bless New York” or “God bless California.”)

Cruz opens with insults about President Joe Biden, saying he is led around by the Easter Bunny. Somebody in the second row shouts “He’s not our president!” Cruz, who challenged the 2020 election and still refuses to say whether or not Biden was legitimately elected, ignores her.

Next he turns to attacking Vice President Kamala Harris, and the same woman yells “She’s not our vice president!”—and Cruz, knowing these are the types of voters he has to keep in the fold, again ignores her, chiding Harris for a gaffe: “We have a vice president who goes to the Korean peninsula and gives a speech about our great friends and allies North Korea and really, and really, what did the North Korean people do to deserve Kamala Harris?”

No one in the crowd seems to notice the stunning hypocrisy of this criticism of Harris coming from Cruz, who sycophantically supported Donald Trump despite his forays into North Korea, shaking hands with Kim Jong-un, saluting their generals, and, of course, the beautiful love letters with Kim that somehow ended up at Mar-a-Lago.

Cruz trots out a series of lame quips about inflation—“Look, it’s so bad, Antifa can’t afford bricks. . . . It’s so bad Hunter Biden can’t afford crack cocaine”—before switching modes. Uncle Ted transforms into Preacher Ted: “Now some of y’all might be thinking, ‘Ted, you said you were gonna encourage us. You really suck at this.’ But I told you. Here’s the second message: Revival is coming.”

Sen. Ted Cruz with Gov. Glenn Youngkin and congressional candidate Yesli Vega. (Photo by Jim Swift / The Bulwark)

Cruz paints, like his father but in less apocalyptic terms, the upcoming election this way: “I believe this is a battle between sanity and insanity. These people are nuts!” he screams. “They can’t figure out what a woman is! The last I checked, that was not a trick question.”

In talking about Vega and some of the other Latina candidates he’s supporting this cycle, Cruz tells a story about his “tia loca” who would throw her rubber sandals at him when he was acting up, suggesting he was looking forward to the day when these women would throw their shoes at Adam Schiff or Jerry Nadler on the House floor.

As he winds down, Ted Cruz, who clearly does not want to be a senator anymore, switches into salesman mode.

Anyone know what I did this morning? This morning? I was on The View.

It was more than a little lively, but you gotta go and be a happy warrior with smiles and joy, speak the truth, and we’ve gotta get around the corrupt media. Three years ago, I launched a podcast called Verdict with Ted Cruz. We launched it and shortly thereafter it became the number-one ranked podcast in the world.

We do three podcasts a week. We’ve had over 50 million downloads, and every week we beat CNN’s morning show.

Cruz hawks his wares, encouraging all in attendance to text a word to a number so they can sign up for his show. Meanwhile, Vega and Youngkin just sort of stare off into the middle distance. I’m frankly surprised Cruz didn’t try to sell even more merch, like his new book, Justice Corrupted, just published this week.

Cruz closes with an applause line about what it would mean if Republicans take control of the House and Senate:

Nancy is going to get on her broom. All right. All right. That’s not fair, That’s not right. Nancy is going to get on her private jet, the USS Broom, and she’s going to fly back to San Francisco. And actually for her sake, I really hope her husband doesn’t pick her up at the airport.

And Chuck Schumer is gonna get on the Acela and head back to Manhattan. And then we’re gonna tell Joe Biden that it’s 2025 and he’ll just wander back to Delaware.

Hardy-har. Just one question: How did Ted Cruz get from New York to Virginia? On Sunday night, Cruz was being heckled at the Yankees / Astros game, and on Monday morning he was in ABC’s New York studios for The View. Did he then hop on the bus? Or did he, like Nancy Pelosi, take a private jet?

Here’s his response:

There’s nothing wrong with government officials taking private flights, so long as it’s done in accordance with ethics laws. There’s nothing wrong with Pelosi taking private flights to San Francisco, just as there would be nothing wrong with taking a plane from New York down to Virginia for a rally.

The two things that bother me are Cruz making it appear to voters that he’s on a real bus tour, barnstorming for candidates, when the bus is more a symbol than a real touring vehicle. And his hypocrisy in going after others for taking private jets when he enjoys a good private jet himself now and then.

In private, Cruz can be very different from how he is in public—he can be a whole lot more honest and likable. But when he’s in front of reporters, Cruz tends to be like one of those children’s toys where you squeeze its palm and he blurts out a canned line about Pelosi and planes, or Biden and the Easter Bunny, and nothing else.

Back in 2013, my then-colleague Andrew Ferguson rode in a car with Cruz between campaign events, and his description of the experience is too good not to quote:

[In the car, Cruz] mentioned the great divide in America, again, and was quoting Margaret Thatcher when I realized he was giving a speech again, except this time at close quarters, only a few feet away, in the backseat of a car. I made a quick calculation of how many vertebrae I would damage if I slipped the lock, opened the door, and did a tuck and roll onto the passing pavement. The answer was: too many. So I contented myself with looking out the window at the Houston exurbs until the speech wound down and I could ask another question, after which the speech resumed and I watched the endless series of tire stores and taco stands and Jiffy Lubes roll by.

Once I got home on Monday night, I watched a replay of Cruz’s interactions with reporters, and video of the audience members who lined up to write on the bus and take pictures with Cruz and the others. He made some brief remarks, and there it was again—the Pelosi line about private jets. The crowd ate it up, despite having heard the same line 30 minutes earlier.

One thing I didn’t hear—in person or in the videos, or anywhere in the transcript of Monday night’s rally—was any mention of Donald Trump. As best as I can tell, no one at the Virginia rally, not a single speaker, uttered the former president’s name. Not even once. But he remains the most important figure in the Republican party, and if he decides to run again for the presidency then Cruz will presumably be in for four more years of subservient abasement. There’s no getting away from that fact, whether you try to escape by bus or plane.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.