Ted Cruz is sure i am out to get him. He has been enduring this interview for an hour in a New Orleans hotel suite with sweeping views of the barges churning up the Mississippi River 29 stories below. Not until the end does he hint the whole thing is just theater, its outcome as certain as a show vote in the Senate. Questions were asked; answers were given. But now, Cruz suggests, he will be reduced to caricature in the pages of TIME.
"There is a tendency to describe conservatives as one of two things: stupid or evil," says the freshman Senator from Texas, leaning back against the patterned sofa, a black ostrich-skin boot resting on his knee. "A conservative is either stupid--too dumb to know the right answers. Or even worse, if they actually know the right answer, then they're evil."
Cruz has been called worse. Seven months into his Senate career, he has won a reputation as the chamber's biggest troublemaker. Liberal pundits have called him a "political terrorist" and a "Taliban" extremist. To Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, he is a "schoolyard bully." Republican John McCain christened him a "wacko bird." And those epithets are mild compared with those muttered by colleagues from both parties behind closed doors.
But to movement conservatives around the country, Rafael Edward Cruz, 42, is something different: the Platonic ideal of a Tea Party legislator and just maybe the man to lead the GOP out of the Obama era. It's not only that Cruz is good on God and guns. Or that he's blessed with a bootstrap tale, Hispanic heritage and rhetorical gifts that complicate every liberal story line about conservatives being rich or racist or dumb. It's also the fact that his slashing attacks on Republicans and Democrats alike shatter custom in the clubby Senate, where tradition dictates that members describe even colleagues they despise as "my friend."
As a result, Cruz's growing profile and his ascent in the early 2016 presidential polls worry Republican consultants, who took Barack Obama's near sweep of swing states in 2012 as a sign the party needs to tack back toward the center to recapture the evolving American electorate. At a moment when others in the GOP are urging compromise, the Texan has bet big on combat. He helped lead the fight against expanded background checks on gun sales, joined Senator Rand Paul's filibuster against Obama's drone policy and fought against Florida Senator Marco Rubio's push for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now he is launching a new crusade to defund the President's health care law, raising the specter of a government shutdown that spooks Republicans more than Democrats. "Don't blink," Cruz tells the crowds.
But if calling out the "squishes" in the Republican "surrender caucus" has made him a pariah in Washington, that is more by design than accident. "Every time Establishment Senators and Washington insiders scold him, it's a payday," says Dave Carney, a veteran GOP strategist. "He thrives on the fact that insiders are saying this is not the way that it's done. For the last 40 years, the way it's been done sucks."