Amanda Muñoz
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This piece, entitled “The People’s Player,” is featured in the December 2013 issue of Townhall Magazine, which you can buy, here.

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“There’s nothing more heartbreaking than walking out on Monday morning to get on a plane to Washington, and having both girls grab my legs and say, ‘Don’t go, Daddy.’ That’s difficult.”

It’s the first time this morning GOP Sen. Ted Cruz’s face drops, as he chats with Townhall during an exclusive interview. Photos of smiling Caroline, 5, and Catherine, 2, flash in the background of his screen saver. His wife, Heidi, and their two daughters remain at the family home in Houston; and Cruz commutes to and from Washington, D.C., each week, leaving Mondays after dropping the girls off at school and typically returning on a Thursday night flight.

There’s a long pause.

“It’s incredibly difficult to be away from Heidi and the girls; but at the same time, they are a big part of why I’m doing this,” Cruz continues. “In 20 years, I don’t want to look my daughters in the eye and say we allowed freedom to slip away in America, and I didn’t do anything to stop it.”

THE UNDERDOG

On Jan. 3, 2013, the young Cruz, only 42, took his place among the ranks of U.S. senators, filling the seat former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison held since 1993.

The 2012 Senate campaign in Texas was hard-fought, and Cruz was the underdog. Running against the well-established, well-connected Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, prospects for victory were certainly unclear from the beginning. Dewhurst—with an estimated worth of about $200 million—had the money, name recognition, and political backing that made him all but a shoe-in for the seat. With Dewhurst endorsed by most of Texas’ major players, including Gov. Rick Perry, there were few who initially thought Cruz would be a formidable challenge.

But they were wrong.

Defeated in the May primary by approximately 11 percent, Cruz found redemption in keeping Dewhurst below the 50 percent threshold required in Texas. But Cruz had grassroots support and a savvy social media campaign. He won the July run-off in a landslide victory, earning 57 percent of the vote compared to Dewhurst’s 43, and swept the November general election beating his Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Paul Sadler, with a powerful 56 percent of the vote (compared to Sadler’s 41 percent).

His victory in an overwhelmingly red state did not reflect a changing tide across the country; Republicans lost seats in both chambers and Barack Obama was re-elected. However, his success and those of others like him—Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul—did mirror the changing nature of conservative candidates that began in 2010.

A Tea Party darling and purebred conservative, Cruz ran on one “simple” idea: Saving our country. And he won because he had the ability to do what very few in Washington have been able to do since 2008—inspire those listening to him to stay active and vocal.

Ironically enough, it was the manifestation of that same grassroots revival that would end up driving the Republican establishment mad come mid-September 2013.

THE PEOPLE’S PASSION

“The velocity of the issues that are swirling about the Senate is remarkable,” Cruz says. “But at the same time, it’s exhilarating to have the opportunity to travel the state of Texas, to travel the country and listen to the American people. There are so many men and women who are energized, who are passionate, to turn things around, that I can’t help but be inspired every single day.”

Cruz sits back in his chair. The daunting and agonizingly long schedule of an elected official appears to have little effect on him, at least on this particular morning, though he admits the large coffee in his hand is not his first of the day. While Cruz is generally a calculated and even-toned speaker—the residual effect of a successful law career—the current excitement in his voice is unmistakable.

INHERITING THE AMERICAN DREAM

It’s not hard to see how Cruz’s life turned into a career for public service. Even as a child, he was enamored with the values of the U.S. Constitution, and his family was the quintessential example of the American dream.

A hallmark at most of Cruz’s major speaking events is the story of his father, Rafael, who escaped prison and Cuba during the overthrow of the Batista regime. The story goes that Rafael was once a rebel for Castro but was caught and beaten by Batista’s soldiers. Soon after, he fled to the United States speaking no English and with only $100 sewn into his underwear, as described by his son to GQ in an interview this past October. Rafael was able to enroll at the University of Texas to study mathematics, work his way through college washing dishes, and start his own oil and gas business with his then-wife and Cruz’s mother, Eleanor Darragh. Cruz’s father believed in the opportunity America offered and worked hard to create a better life for his family.

“I’ve really had two heroes in my life,” Cruz told GQ. “My father and Ronald Reagan…I think it is an enormous blessing to be the child of an immigrant who fled oppression and came here seeking freedom, because there was an urgency in politics. Having principled men and women in office is how you protect yourself from tyranny, and that was something I learned from when I was 2, 3, 5 years old.”

As a teenager, Cruz was involved with several conservative groups, where he learned about free-market principles and political philosophy. He graduated valedictorian of Houston’s Second Baptist High School and went on to study at Princeton University and Harvard Law School. During college, Cruz was a national award-winning debater, primary editor of the Harvard Law Review, and executive editor of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. He was also a founding editor of the Harvard Latino Law Review.

His impressive academic background led to federal-level clerkships. He also served as attorney to John Boehner during a lawsuit in 1998, and as domestic policy adviser on the Bush- Cheney campaign in 1999. His service on the Bush campaign earned him the spot of director of policy planning at the Federal Trade Commission, and then associate deputy attorney general at the Justice Department.

Later, Cruz was appointed solicitor general of Texas. Cruz’s tenure in that position from 2003-2008 made him both the longest-serving and first Hispanic solicitor general in Texas state history. At the time, he was also the youngest solicitor general in the country. As if there wasn’t enough on his plate, Cruz also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law. He retired from his position with the state to return to private practice in 2008.

To label his legal career as successful would be an understatement. His record includes presenting 43 oral arguments, nine of which were made before the Supreme Court, and authoring 80 Supreme Court briefs.

The courtroom honed the battle skills Cruz needed to hit the ground running when he entered the doors of Congress.

CRUZ AGAINST THE WORLD

“If we are to win this fight—and at this point, I’m not sure if we will—it will be because a grassroots tsunami has risen up and demanded action—that the American people have held their elected officials accountable.

“I believe the American people should hold every elected official accountable—including me—and that’s the key to turning things around and getting Congress to focus on the issues that matter most to hardworking American families.”

It’s mid-September when Cruz makes these comments, and the battle over Obamacare is about to explode in Congress. Both the House and Senate are gearing up for the biggest fight yet over the president’s health care law.

“Three months ago when this fight began, virtually every observer in Washington—all the greybeards—said this was an impossible task—this could not happen,” Cruz says. “And between then and now, we have seen millions upon millions of Americans come together and demand leadership in Washington and demand that our elected officials stand up and do the right thing.”

For Cruz, the Obamacare defund fight is genuinely about righting the sinking ship; and as his reputation during his nine months as senator have proven, he would do what he believed a majority of the American people expected of not only him, but every member of Congress, even if that meant falling from the graces of Washington’s elite.

When asked about his role in the 2014 and 2016 elections, Cruz simply says he hopes to be helpful in bringing in more strong, conservative candidates who are ready to fight for their principles.

A CLOSING WINDOW

“What we do in the office every day is simply try to do the right thing. Our mantra is ‘good policy makes good politics.’ On each issue that comes down the pike, the team’s focus is: What is the principled course of action? How can we defend free market principles? How can we defend the Constitution?”

The senator, who describes his Senate experience as a “whirlwind,” acknowledges his press secretary sitting nearby.

“I feel particularly blessed with the team that has come together in this office,” he continues. “The men and women who are working here are here, I believe, for the right reasons— are here because they love liberty and they are concerned about the direction of this country and want to pour their hearts into doing everything we can to pull this nation back from the brink.

“Where I think so many Republicans have gone wrong,” he continues, “is they have compromised for compromise sake. They have compromised in a way that is worse for the status quo. I don’t think a deal is a good deal if it exacerbates the problem. If we’re moving in the right direction, then I’m perfectly happy taking less than 100 percent of what I would like.”

In the days to come, the battle with Democrats over Obamacare was exposed as an ugly and bitter divide between Republicans, and ultimately resulted in the first government shutdown since the Clinton administration in 1995 and 1996.

Although House Republicans endured a blaze of fire in the mainstream media, it was Cruz who took the post of whipping boy within the party.

THE GOP'S FUTURE IN THE SENATE

Cruz was never known for being a complacent member of Congress. Less than a month into his term, Cruz earned national attention for his outspoken stance during the short- lived gun control debate after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. He then turned heads within own his party during his forceful questioning of Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel and with his leading role in the opposition of the Gang of Eight immigration bill.

It was never his intention to fall in line with business as usual. He’s even changing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he is vice chair along with Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Along with chairman Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, these senators will have input into how well Republican incumbents are protected and how many Democratic seats are pursued.

In the past, the NRSC played a prominent role in mid-term primaries, but Cruz believes “Washington doesn’t have a good track record of picking winners and losers” and that “primaries should be decided by the grassroots voters on the ground in each state.” While not opposed to personal participation in primary elections, the senator hopes the NRSC will only play a supporting role, once candidates are chosen.

“The team we have is remarkably effective, and that is amplified a thousand-fold by the effectiveness of grassroots activists across this country and men and women across this country who are engaged powerfully in the fight to get back to our founding principles.

“I believe our window to turn things around – to pull back from this path we’re on – is not very long. If we keep going down this road … the damage to this country could be enormous. So I am hopeful and I believe 2016 will be a favorable economic climate; but just as with 2014, whether it is or not will depend upon whether Republicans stand for our values, stand for free- market principles, stand for the Constitution - or whether we roll over and paint in pale pastels.”

AN OPEN DOOR

While the senator likes the focus to remain on policy, he is truly a political powerhouse. Among Republicans, the jury is divided as to whether Cruz is a godsend or a curse.

Regardless of his place in history, Cruz did more in his first year than many veteran senators accomplished in decades. He shook up the Washington establishment and he elevated the voice of his constituents not just on the Senate floor, but across the country.

And, for better or worse, his influence – the influence of a first-term, junior senator – brought the entire federal government to its knees during the October shutdown.

It’s certainly true that at the end of the day, Cruz will be able to tell his young daughters he did everything he could to preserve this great country as a land of opportunity for the free.

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Amanda Muñoz

Amanda Muñoz is an editorial contributor for Townhall.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AmandaAMunoz.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography