HOUSTON—Ted Cruz spent the night before what he hoped would be his re-election at the Redneck Country Club, a sprawling watering hole and venue in southwest Houston.
The club is owned by local radio shock jock Michael Berry, the kind of guy who used to do a “Chicago Crime Report” on his show. The RCC, which often hosts Republican events, is a palatial monument to making libs mad. More than that, it’s a “safe space” for people whose identities are constructed around the act of making libs mad, which has always been the foundational element of Cruz’s political project. There’s a replica of the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard in the courtyard in back—roped off so drunken revelers don’t scuff the Confederate battle flag on its top—and an empty bar stool set aside for the troops who didn’t come home, complete with a topped-off draft beer. The membership ranks of the RCC are grouped by calibers of bullets, so that the people with the most comfortable view of Cruz’s speech on Monday night were sitting on a viewing platform reserved for “.357 Magnum members” and above. There was also a guy outside selling shirts that says “Secede?? Y’all are lucky we don’t invade!”
This is Texas—or at least, what a lot of people think Texas is. Cruz is one of those people. His speech consisted of a lot of references to the things people in the crowd liked, followed by the refrain, “that’s Texas,” or, “that’s Texas too.” The state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick—himself a former radio shock jock—was also here. So was Stan Stanart, who runs elections in Houston’s Harris County, the nation’s third largest. For much of this year, Stanart warned on his website that “George Soros is coming,” to “control Harris County Elections,” accompanied with a big picture of Soros’s face, shot from below.
It might seem incongruous that Cruz was here. He was born in Canada, and at Harvard Law School he famously barred anyone without an Ivy League undergrad degree from his study groups. His wife worked for Goldman Sachs, and the two of them seem to spend as little time together in Texas as possible. They belong to the well-heeled class of Houstonian whose typical “Texas” jaunts involve a private jet to the Big Bend resort of Lajitas and back, and maybe some dove hunting from time to time.
But here Cruz was with the folks. This is where he’s always been, since he secured his Senate seat in 2012 by attending approximately five thousand Tea Party meetings, in churches and homes, and convincing people he was one of them. He was performing at the RCC, but importantly, so were the people in this audience. This place couldn’t exist without the idea that its existence is making people angry — that there are people who want to dismantle it.
The RCC is a place that sells itself as the essential arbiter of what is Texas—which is to say, what is right—but it’s as kitschy and knowing as any drag show. Places like this didn’t exist in the old days. They weren’t necessary, because nothing they represent was seen as being under threat. Like Cruz, many of the people who perform the role of Texas defender best are transplants. Patrick is from Baltimore; many of the state’s Tea Party leaders came here from California or Virginia.
If Beto O’Rourke’s strange and strangely successful campaign this year has changed anything, it’s in part to do with the country’s perception of Texas, and the state’s perception of itself. It was hard to argue with Cruz’s categorization of what the state was during the last eight years, because it was evidently politically correct. In an environment in which no general election is seriously contested and the path to power lies in winning a majority of Republican primary voters, this brand of politics appeared to be what voters wanted. And it probably still is.
But the race has thrown into sharper relief than ever before that Cruz, who was once seen as a kind of political wunderkind for his rise to power, has nothing to offer other than this—we are we, and we are not them. He can’t offer anything from his record to his constituents, because it only consists of a few inconsequential bills. He can only say, you love Texas and I am Texas. I perform Texas for you.
What is more in evidence than before—if only just for a national audience—is that there are other Texases, from the kids in the Rio Grande Valley to the multiplying diversity of the suburbs to the discontented Republicans in rural areas to the state’s increasingly rock-solid blue urban cores. That crowd isn’t favored to win today, but they’re peeking out.
At the beginning of the race, Cruz spoke often about how excited this match-up made him, how much he was looking forward to debating O’Rourke on the issues, just as he debated Bernie Sanders. He loved freedom, and O’Rourke was a socialist, and it would be just like his college debate days, which are precious to him. Instead, his campaign has consisted of some ham-fisted race-baiting, shaming O’Rourke for talking about police violence to black audiences; a picture of O’Rourke in a dress; some stupid back-and-forth about the nature of O’Rourke’s nickname; the contention that O’Rourke’s campaign was funding the migrant caravan; and some self-evident lying about O’Rourke’s voting record.
His concluding speech at the RCC consisted almost exclusively of things that have nothing to do with him. The Texas economy was doing very well, he said. Oil exploration is up. He said O’Rourke had voted for a “ten dollar a barrel tax” on oil, which isn’t true, and added that “that is a great vote if you’re raising money in San Francisco. They’ll pour you extra Chardonnay for that vote,” which is a good line, summoning up that which is effete and foreign, if you didn’t know or care that Cruz was recently mobbed at a D.C. restaurant that sells Chardonnay for as much as $1,125 a bottle.
“The second thing on the ballot is freedom,” Cruz said, having to pause as chants of “USA! USA!” filled the room. “If there is one word that sums up Texas it is freedom.” Also, the American embassy in Israel had been moved to Jerusalem. The Iran deal was gone. It sounded a bit like what Cruz might be bragging about had he won the presidency, but he hadn’t. It also sounded like the traditional GOP spiel in Texas—things are good here, we kind of had something to do with it?—which used to belong most of all to Rick Perry, the man Cruz’s rise served as a counterpoint to. No more. The air is out of the balloon.
The last time I saw Cruz at the RCC, it was Super Tuesday during the 2016 primary. Twice as many people were here to see if Cruz had won Texas, which some were suggesting he might lose to Donald Trump. Cruz won, which his people presented as a great and glorious victory. But it hadn’t been, of course. It was supposed to have been the night he clinched the nomination. Instead it kept him limping forward. That’s what Cruz has done, and been, in this election—limp.
Cruz’s political team is already, through friendly media, trying to portray his (probable) victory over O’Rourke as another masterstroke, instead of a previously guaranteed victory that his weakness put in doubt. He has a chance to sell it as one, if he dominates O’Rourke in the polls tonight. But this is not the kind of victory any of his advisers could have wanted. The shine that accompanied him through much of his first term is off.
The speech ended and people started to close their tabs. The yard that contains the pen of the General Lee, in all its reactionary glory, sat empty in light rain. This year isn’t the end of the Tea Party model in Texas, most likely. But if you stand at just the right angle, and squint in just the right light, you can see the end of it. That’s true now in a way it wasn’t last year. That’s O’Rourke’s true accomplishment, and Cruz’s real loss.
Christopher Hooks is a journalist based in Austin.