HUMBOLDT, Iowa (AP) — Ted Cruz relishes his role as Washington insurgent and tea party agitator, but today's political outsider built much of his career around being a GOP insider — thriving in powerful circles he now says he'd like to dismantle.
A Princeton graduate and Harvard-trained attorney, Cruz clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist at the Supreme Court — the very court he now accuses of "judicial tyranny." While working as a Washington lawyer in 1998, Cruz represented one of his future Capitol Hill nemeses, John Boehner.
He helped get George W. Bush elected president in 2000 — before the Bush White House enraged conservative activists by running up federal deficits.
His first political appointment back home came in 2003. Texas' then-Attorney General Greg Abbott saw in Cruz a hungry young attorney who would enforce his own vision for conservative legal governance, luring him back from Washington to be state solicitor general.
"The first time I ever heard his name was from a longtime party establishment person," says Dale Huls, a suburban Houston tea party activist, referring to an area Republican precinct chair.
Now Huls is preparing to campaign for Cruz in Iowa. Like many supporters, he says he doesn't hold Cruz's non-outsider past against him because "he has not disappointed us one single time" since being elected. '
"You take your experience from the times you were living," Huls says. "At that time, Bush was the guy. I voted for Bush twice."
Cruz's unforeseen 2012 Senate victory got a $5.5 million bump from the Club for Growth, a small-government activist group based not in his home state, but Washington. Despite his insider resume, he got the backing of conservative grass-roots activists who helped him tap into the emerging tea party wave.
The experience helped show him the power of being an uncompromising conservative — and a political insurgent was born.
As senator, Cruz has lived up to that billing, helping shut down the government and accusing his own party's Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, of lying.
Bob Larson, who recently heard Cruz speak in the Iowa town of Humboldt, said the senator's past work in elite circles helped him be more effective battling the system today.
"I think he has learned from those and learned to do the right thing for what the people need," said Larson, a 66-year-old farmer.
While campaigning, Cruz emphasizes his battles with what he calls the "Washington cartel."
"When you've been walking the walk, it is evident from every step of the way," Cruz said this week in Sibley, when asked how voters could be sure he wouldn't go to Washington and be "corrupted."
"Every candidate in this race talks about how they're going to stand up to Washington," he said. "The natural follow-up is OK, when have you stood up to Washington?"
Before he even got to Washington, Cruz's Senate campaign victory shook the Texas' GOP establishment when he bested 9-year Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who'd been endorsed by nearly every statewide officeholder. Because of Cruz's support from the Club for Growth and other Washington-based conservative groups, the Dewhurst campaign tried unsuccessfully to suggest Cruz would be co-opted by "D.C. insiders."
"He had a bunch of Washington jobs and worked for a while for the state government, we tried all that," said Dave Carney, a GOP strategist who helped run Dewhurst's campaign. "Your resume has something to do with it, but it's more your attitude, your vision."
Pressure from Cruz allies and some of the U.S. House's most-conservative wing helped push Boehner to resign as House Speaker, and Boehner called the Texas senator a "false prophet." But Cruz had served as Boehner's attorney in 1998, when the Ohio Republican sued a Democratic colleague over the release of a recorded phone conversation.
Mike Carvin, who was then one of Cruz's bosses at the Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal law firm, praised Cruz's early work in the case, which Boehner eventually won in 2008.
"We knew some folks in the Bush campaign and Ted did as well," said Carvin, who said Cruz went to work there "with our blessing and support."
Cruz was a domestic policy adviser to Bush's 2000 presidential run, then was an associate deputy U.S. attorney general and worked with the Federal Trade Commission. Abbott, then Texas' attorney general and now governor, tapped Cruz as solicitor general in 2003 and he argued before the Supreme Court eight times.
Cruz has spent much of his life revering the high court, but after its rulings on the health care law and same-sex marriage last summer, he suggested its justices had "crossed from the realm of activism into the arena of oligarchy."
While that may look like a political about-face to some, others aren't worried that his background could undermine his insurgent credibility.
"The reason they say he's an outsider is because he doesn't agree with the way things are done," said Curtis Stover, 55, of Fort Dodge.
Weissert reported from Austin, Texas.