Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas stamped his conservative brand on the GOP’s tax bill. Now his and other Republicans’ political futures could hinge on its success or failure.
From starring in a string of nationally televised debates to brokering last-minute deals with his Republican colleagues, the first-term senator has been intimately involved in shaping the legislation that Republicans hope to have signed into law before Christmas.
That bill, which Cruz helped rally Republicans behind, has drawn praise from GOP groups as a once-in-a-generation achievement on the party’s biggest policy goal.
“After years of stagnation, Americans are about to see growth, investment and more money in their paychecks for the first time in quite a while,” Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips said Tuesday.
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Its actual political impact is anything but certain.
A Dec. 10-12 Monmouth University poll showed the public disapproval of the bill at 47 percent, compared to 26 percent who approved.
And Cruz’s Democratic challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso — who has said very little about the senator since joining the race last March — is eagerly tearing into him over the tax bill.
“This is the first thing that he’s been part of that will be a bona fide accomplishment, and it’s going to hurt the majority of working families in Texas,” O’Rourke said in an interview Tuesday with the Star-Telegram.
Cruz’s tax plan will effectively be on the ballot in the coming year’s midterms, when the party in power traditionally loses seats in the House and Senate.
“The Senate’s tax reform bill takes a significant step toward fulfilling our promise to provide tax relief for American families across our country,” Cruz said after it passed the Senate.
“I am particularly proud of three specific items that I fought aggressively to include,” he said, listing a break for parents who send their children to special schools, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and the inclusion of a state and local tax deduction.
GOP groups have spent millions promoting the bill and welcomed Cruz’s help with an achievement they say is key to their 2018 midterm strategy.
At the same time, Cruz — who rose from long-shot Senate candidate in 2012 to top contender for the GOP presidential nomination last year — now faces his first potentially competitive race against a Democrat next year. Cruz easily defeated his 2012 Democratic opponent, Paul Sadler, 57-41 percent.
Cruz is one of eight GOP senators seeking re-election in the first general election since President Donald Trump took office. The senator’s own approval was at 38 percent in an October UT-Austin/Texas Tribune poll.
The final tax bill is hardly Cruz’s own plan, which he laid out in September at the Tax Foundation, just off Capitol Hill. But it’s full of provisions he helped secure.
Cruz was one of a handful of GOP senators who in November pushed to include a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. He also helped talk members of his party out of a provision that would have automatically raised taxes if the tax plan didn’t meet revenue goals.
Cruz is aggressively promoting a school choice provision he championed, which gives tax breaks to families who pay to send their children to public, private and religious schools. As of Tuesday evening, part of that provision’s status was in peril for failing to meet the Senate’s budget rules.
School choice is the rare social issue that gets support from the Koch network, which has actively promoted the idea in Texas. Cruz’s role in promoting school-choice breaks has earned him praise from conservative media and the social conservatives who could fuel another presidential bid in the future.
That plan had originally won Senate approval only after a late-night tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence to defeat unified Democratic opposition plus two GOP defectors, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Cruz also helped Republicans push the final overall tax bill at a time when the members of his party struggled to stay united. He debated Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders three times on national television and joined other GOP lawmakers on conservative media, urging lawmakers to stay focused on the goal.
“I am spending virtually every waking moment trying to bring Republicans together in the Senate to get to 50 out of 52 votes so we can honor our promise for a major historic tax cut that gets the economy moving and moving strong,” Cruz told business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in October.
Democrats are also eager to remind voters of Cruz’s contributions.
“He has shut the government down, he’s obstructed, he’s filibustered, he’s kept things from getting done,” said O’Rourke. “This is his first legislative accomplishment … absolutely we’ll talk about this.”
Pointing to an independent analysis, O’Rourke said nearly a million Texans could lose health insurance over Cruz’s individual mandate provision and insurance costs could rise by $1,700 for the average Texan.
The Democrat also slammed the school choice provision for robbing public schools to give tax breaks to the wealthy.
“The great equalizer historically for the United States has been education and everyone being able to start from a level playing field,” said O’Rourke. “This is really bad for Texas.”
Republicans contend that independent analyses of the tax bill are flawed and that the changes will help their candidates in 2018.
“Even President Reagan’s historic tax reform was fairly unpopular [when] it passed, but public opinion quickly came around as the economy boomed with more jobs and opportunity,” said Phillips. “We see that happening again.”