The 2016 Iowa Republican presidential caucus results were clear: Donald Trump lost. But instead of congratulating his opponent and moving on, Trump questioned the validity of the results.
"Ted Cruz didn't win Iowa, he stole it. That is why all of the polls were so wrong and why he got far more votes than anticipated. Bad!" Trump tweeted that February.
In another tweet, Trump wrote, "Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified."
Cruz shrugged the claims off, calling it a "Trumpertantrum."
More than four years later, the shoe is on the other foot. As Trump falsely insists that he won the 2020 presidential election, he has turned to Cruz to help him make his case.
Cruz — while not specifically repeating Trump's claim that the election was "stolen" — has cheered on the lawsuits alleging voter fraud in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan that the Trump campaign has pursued since early November. On Tuesday night, Trump asked Cruz — and Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general, agreed — to argue the state of Texas' long-shot lawsuit seeking to overturn the election results if the case reaches the Supreme Court, a spokesperson for Cruz confirmed to The Texas Tribune.
That request is the latest evolution in what used to be a contentious relationship between Trump and Cruz. Both considered outsider candidates in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, the two became allies and even made appearances together in the early stages of the race. But they quickly turned bitter enemies, lobbing vicious, personal attacks at each other as primary frontrunners.
After accepting defeat, Cruz, who did not return a request for comment for this story, slowly warmed up to the idea of a Trump presidency after endorsing Trump that fall. And now he has become one of Trump's most prominent allies in the Senate.
The evolution of Trump and Cruz
In the earliest days of Trump's political ascendance, Cruz appeared to be one of the future president's few friends in the Republican Party. While other Republicans running for president — like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — were calling Trump things like a "cancer on conservatism" in the summer of 2015, Cruz called Trump "terrific" and met with him privately in Trump Tower in New York. The two candidates avoided attacking each other in early debates.
"For most of the campaign, on a personal level, Trump and I had gotten along quite well," Cruz wrote in the introduction of his new book, "One Vote Away: How a Single Supreme Court Seat Can Change History." "At my invitation, we participated in a rally together on the steps of the Capitol. We both went out of our way to be nice to each other, and we were appealing to the same core voters: working-class Americans fed up with the Washington swamp."
Things turned icier in late 2015, but it wasn't until Cruz defeated Trump in the Iowa caucuses that the relationship truly went south. Trump called Cruz an "unstable individual" and later gave Cruz his infamous nickname "Lyin' Ted." The attacks only became more personal after Trump retweeted an unflattering photo of Cruz's wife, Heidi, and baselessly alleged that Cruz's father was connected to Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed President John F. Kennedy.
Cruz fired back at the time, calling Trump a "pathological liar" and a narcissist. Even after Trump won the nomination, Cruz held off on endorsing him for months, drawing boos at the 2016 Republican National Convention for telling people to "vote your conscience" instead of explicitly saying to vote for Trump. In an interview at The Texas Tribune Festival a day after Cruz finally endorsed Trump in September, Cruz was unwilling to call the Republican nominee fit for the presidency and seemed to agree with an audience member who said Trump was "openly misogynist."
In his book, however, Cruz said that his reluctance to support Trump was "not personal."
"Both my wife and my dad, who were the targets of Trump's ire, are strong, fiercely independent, and love our country," Cruz wrote. "They had both laughed off his attacks at the time."
Instead, Cruz wrote that his reluctance to endorse was out of concern about whether Trump was truly conservative. He wrote that he decided to support him because of Trump's promise to choose a Supreme Court nominee from a specific list of conservatives — and to include Cruz's friend U.S. Sen. Mike Lee on that list — and because he thought he could have a "meaningful, positive influence" on Trump's campaign and on the policies Trump would support.
And Trump seemed to forget about his attacks on Cruz during the primaries: Cruz's name was floated for attorney general in 2016, he met with Trump during his transition, and he steadfastly supported Trump throughout Trump's four years in office. This year, Cruz was listed as one of Trump's potential Supreme Court nominees.
"I think Trump respects Ted because he's tough and a fighter and he felt like that was a hell of a campaign," said Jeff Roe, a top Republican strategist and campaign manager for Cruz's 2016 presidential run. "They started out doing rallies together and ending up doing rallies against each other and had a great combative campaign. I think they respect each other, and I think once you respect each other in politics, you can get a lot done together."
Others see political incentives, too.
"Ultimately Cruz's non-endorsement of Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention hurt his extremely high standing among Texas Republicans after that event and seemed to have led to a change of heart in terms of how Cruz decided he was going to orient himself to the president, taking on a much more subservient and supportive role," said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
A loyal ally
Either way, Cruz has proven in the past four years that he'll stand by Trump in the president's most pressing times. During Trump's impeachment trial early this year, Cruz joined forces with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as part of the in-house impeachment advisory team and met with Trump and his lawyers to help "frame their legal strategy," which ultimately contributed to the president's acquittal.
And now, Cruz has been a leading voice in sowing doubt in Trump's 2020 electoral defeat.
In the early morning following this November's election, Trump declared victory even though most battleground states were too close to call and still counting votes — with Biden on track to win a majority of them.
Trump then began claiming that people were "finding Biden votes all over the place" while mail-in ballots were still being counted in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. In fact, there was no credible evidence of malfeasance on a level that would have affected the election results. Polls indicated and experts predicted long before the election that Democrats would hold an advantage over Republicans in mail-in voting, considering Trump's opposition to it and the health and safety protocols due to the pandemic.
Cruz publicly cast doubt on the vote counting process. Much of his focus in the early days of the election was on the issue of poll watchers. On television, Cruz falsely said the monitors were not being allowed to watch vote counting in Pennsylvania, even though a Trump lawyer admitted in court that they were in fact present.
"I am angry, and I think the American people are angry," Cruz said in a Nov. 5 interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. "Because, by throwing the observers out, by clouding the vote counting in a shroud of darkness, they are setting the stage to potentially steal an election."
Lately, Cruz has shifted his focus to urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear lawsuits aiming to reverse the election results, even though legal experts assert that the cases stand little chance of succeeding.
"He [Cruz] wants to make sure that in a race that is going to be decided by fewer than 100,000 votes, and maybe even 50,000 votes, that it was conducted properly and legally and fair, and when he goes back to work with the likely new administration, they'll go to battle, agree where they can, but go back to battle," Roe said.
But Blank said Cruz's position on voter fraud and the election is not unique among Texas Republicans.
"Claims of voter fraud did not originate with Donald Trump, and Texas Republicans have been working since at least 2011 to restrict the voting system in the state based on allegations, though little to no evidence, of substantive and significant fraud," Blank said. "Having been successful at convincing their voters of this misinformation, Republican elected officials are largely bound in by it now, and it's easy to sort of look at Cruz in the context of his Senate colleagues who again are, you know, are in different states with different political cultures and different public opinion landscapes."
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed his lawsuit Tuesday against four battleground states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — asking the Supreme Court to block the states from voting in the Electoral College. The request from Trump for Cruz to get involved came that night.
"This is an appeal to Trump's supporters and a way of showing unflinching loyalty to the President," said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, in an email.
Hasen said he sees no credible evidence or arguments that support overturning the results. U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr and most state officials have said that there is no evidence of widespread fraud in the election.
"The claims in the cases are particularly weak, and Senator Cruz is very smart. He must have known the cases were weak." Hasen said. "I do worry about the corrosive effects of calling the election stolen on American democracy. This is a way to delegitimize the Biden presidency, and it is dangerous when millions of people falsely believe we did not have a fair election."
Cruz's plans for 2024
Looming over Cruz's actions is the possibility that he will run for president in 2024. When asked about his plans in August, he said he did not know but hoped to eventually run again.
Cruz thought 2016 was his time — he was one of the last candidates to drop out of the race and even picked a running mate. But Trump took away many conservative votes Cruz thought he would win, creating a base that Republicans cannot afford to alienate next cycle. By being seen as an ally of Trump during the election fight, Cruz could be well-positioned to win many of his firmest backers' support in 2024 — if Trump decides not to run again.
"I don't think we know what the Republican electorate looks like post-Donald, post the Donald Trump presidency," Blank said. "Ted Cruz came to the fore during the Tea Party wave and really made his bones by being the most conservative conservative in the room where the meaning of conservatism was not terribly up for debate."
And while some Republicans are separating themselves from Trump, it may still be in Cruz's favor, in another presidential or Senate run, to continue to support the president.
"As much as the interest as there was in Beto O'Rourke [in Cruz's 2018 reelection bid], Cruz is still the junior senator from Texas, and he still won that seat despite his embrace of the president," Blank said.
Emma Platoff contributed reporting.
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