SAN ANTONIO — Senator Ted Cruz had an idea: legislation to keep immigrant families together at the border — stanching a political crisis created by President Trump — while also adding judges to speed up asylum requests.
Mr. Trump had a different impulse: make Mr. Cruz’s life exceedingly complicated.
This was not a first.
“We have to have a real border, not judges,” Mr. Trump said in a speech on Tuesday, mocking the proposal one day before issuing an executive order to end the separations. “What country does this?”
Over the last three years of a many-chaptered political life, some things have changed for Mr. Cruz — Mr. Trump, in the Texas senator’s estimation, has gone from “terrific” to “pathological liar” to pretty O.K. after all — and some things have stayed the same. The main constant: the president disrupting his best laid plans.
After conceding defeat to Mr. Trump in a vicious 2016 presidential primary, Mr. Cruz, 47, is now facing career mortality in a re-election fight back home, even as he takes care to keep a foothold in the national conversation.
He is one of several ambitious conservatives, and perhaps the most ambitious and most conservative, feeling his way through a Republican metamorphosis under Mr. Trump that a colleague, Senator Bob Corker, recently compared to cultish behavior.
Mr. Trump wiped out a generation of Republican talent on the way to his 2016 victory, including Mr. Cruz and Senate peers like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. And as he stands for re-election through midterm headwinds, Mr. Cruz — as much as any leader in his party — is straining to straddle the boundary between this political moment and the next one, whatever it might look like: He recognizes that popularity with the party’s base requires intense loyalty to Mr. Trump, a man he once called erratic and dangerous. He also hopes to be around long after Mr. Trump is gone.
“It’s like asking Tom Brady if he wants to win the Super Bowl,” Steve Deace, a conservative commentator and a friend of Mr. Cruz, said of the senator’s desire to run for president again. “He’d like to. Whether you can or not, what the future holds — who knows?”
For now, Mr. Cruz is still considered a solid favorite for re-election, but a swell of anti-Trump activism, even in this signature Republican state, has raised the degree of difficulty. Representative Beto O’Rourke, his Democratic opponent, has outpaced him in fund-raising and attracted wide-scale media attention. And that was before the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border became the latest minefield in the race.
Mr. Cruz had initially defended the approach, calling the images of despairing children “heartbreaking” but adding that “illegal immigration produces human tragedies.” After reversing himself in his legislative proposal — and hearing Mr. Trump’s dismissive response on Tuesday — Mr. Cruz defended his plan as “a lot more than just judges.”
Democrats have focused on a piece of Mr. Cruz’s bill stipulating that asylum requests be heard within 14 days — insufficient time to prepare a proper case, critics say. Mr. O’Rourke, who called the family separations “torture,” seems likely to keep immigration policy central to his campaign.
“This is America right now,” Mr. O’Rourke said last weekend outside a temporary facility for children, before hinting at his own run. “We get to decide which version of America we are.”
This is also still Texas. Most polls show Mr. Cruz with a clear lead, as high as double digits. And compared with competitive races for Republican-held Senate seats in Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee, Democrats in Washington view this contest as a less promising prospect, despite their enthusiasm for Mr. O’Rourke.
In a 40-minute interview here last week at the Texas Republican Convention, Mr. Cruz said he was taking the race “deadly seriously.”
“These are strange and volatile times,” he said, before grousing about news accounts that have referred to Mr. O’Rourke, who is toothy and tall, as “Kennedy-esque.” (At a booth for Mr. Cruz’s campaign at the convention center here, a cardboard cutout of Mr. O’Rourke understated his height by several inches, leaving him shorter than the senator.)
Mr. Cruz’s perceived advantage in the race owes, in large measure, to his reputational repair work since the 2016 Republican National Convention, when he pointedly refused to endorse Mr. Trump, to ferocious booing.
While many Republicans have changed their minds on the president, few have swerved with Mr. Cruz’s performative zeal — consistent with a career that has included a recitation of “Green Eggs and Ham” on the Senate floor and the selection of a running mate, Carly Fiorina, six days before dropping out in 2016.
He began that presidential primary by wrapping Mr. Trump in a strategic “bear hug,” as he once told donors, pouring on the praise. He ended it — after Mr. Trump suggested Mr. Cruz’s wife was unattractive and insinuated without evidence that his father was involved in the Kennedy assassination — by unburdening himself to reporters hours before quitting the race.
Mr. Trump, he said then, was a “pathological liar” and a “serial philanderer,” an “utterly amoral” conspiracy-monger and a peerless narcissist. (Asked in the interview last week if he had said anything untrue that day, Mr. Cruz sidestepped the question. But he did not take anything back. “I don’t intend to revisit those comments,” he said.)
Mr. Cruz’s convention speech in 2016, during which he urged Republicans to “vote your conscience,” disappointed even some longtime supporters in Texas. At a breakfast the next morning, several delegates from the state jeered him; one held a “Clinton-Cruz 2020” sign. Mr. Cruz told the crowd he would not be a “servile puppy dog” in service of party unity. He endorsed Mr. Trump two months later.
Mr. Cruz and White House officials now speak with mutual warmth, recounting their work together on tax legislation, disaster relief for Texas after Hurricane Harvey and the pardon granted Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative author and filmmaker.
“Surprisingly good,” Mr. Cruz said of their relationship.
Last month, Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Cruz at the National Rifle Association convention in Dallas.
“You’re looking at allies,” said Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, who herself supported Mr. Cruz for president before joining Mr. Trump.
In interviews with Republican activists and voters, few seemed to hold a grudge against Mr. Cruz for his 2016 speech.
“Everybody was a little ticked,” said Elizabeth Walters, a delegate from Burnet, Tex. “I’d say he’s quite forgiven.”
In his address at the Texas convention last week — no boos this time — Mr. Cruz warned Republicans not to underestimate left-wing energy. “They hate the president,” he thundered from the stage. “And they’re coming for Texas.”
The gathering also laid bare the full measure of Mr. Trump’s party takeover, his likeness and vocabulary infusing every inch of this festival of glimmering red cowboy hats and conservative swagger.
“Is he awesome or what?” said Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor.
“Isn’t it great to see a president working hard to make America great again?” asked George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner and son of Jeb Bush, once Mr. Trump’s favorite target.
Senator John Cornyn’s tribute came with production value. His team aired a video demonstrating the bond between “Big Don” and “Big John,” with “It Takes Two” playing over a reel of policy accomplishments.
Asked if he feared the party had become defined more by fealty to Mr. Trump than conservative ideology — as Mr. Corker, the Tennessee senator, and Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who recently lost his House primary, have suggested — Mr. Cruz did not answer directly. He did allude to the assassination of Julius Caesar.
“There are always raw emotions in the ups and downs of politics,” he said. “That was true on the Ides of March, and it’s true today.”
Mr. Cruz seems determined to find the political ups — and an audience — wherever he can, leaning into his national reputation for villainy among liberals. His most recent bid for wide exposure came last Saturday, in a charity basketball game against Jimmy Kimmel, the left-leaning late-night host.
The event was hatched in an after-hours Cruz tweet challenging Mr. Kimmel, who had mocked the senator’s appearance.
The result was nearly two hours of limb-splayed wheeze-grunting from two very middle-aged men with few athletic strengths but a weakness for spectacle. Mr. Cruz won, 11-9, and pledged never to pursue a rematch “for the sake of basketball.”
“Two guys who never work out really, not in great shape,” said Ralph Sampson, a Hall of Fame player who coached Mr. Kimmel. “It was the best they could do.”
The comedian’s aim was sharper in his chosen field. Turning to Mr. Cruz’s young daughter afterward, Mr. Kimmel observed that at last, “You got to see your daddy win something.”
Then there was the question he floated mid-game, sweat dribbling off them both: “Who’s harder to defend: me or Trump?”
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