Ted Cruz’s Secret Weapon to Win the Right
On the trail with Rafael Cruz—dad, preacher, and Ted’s ambassador to the true believers of the Right.
National Journal | June 26, 2015
“YOU REALLY HAVE to hand it to these progressives,” the speaker is saying. He’s stalking the front of the chapel, pacing left to right, hands lifting and slicing and jabbing at the air. “They come up with the greatest terms.” He tosses out an example: “social justice.” “It sounds so good. Who would want social injustice?” But what does this term, social justice, mean? he asks. Where does it come from? “I’ll tell you where it comes from,” he says. “It comes directly out of Karl Marx.”
“That’s right,” comes the reply from the pews as the speaker’s voice gains new urgency. Social justice, he explains, is a scheme to divide society into tiny factions and turn them into victims. It makes those factions dependent on government handouts. It removes God from everyday life.
“Now, let’s try to understand this a little bit,” he continues. “If you don’t believe in God, you can’t rely upon God.”
“If social justice destroys individual responsibility, there is no self-reliance.”
“So if these people can’t rely upon God, and there is no self-reliance, the only thing left”—he waits a beat—”is to rely upon almighty government.”
It’s a warm evening on the first Tuesday of June, and the pews at the Grace Baptist Church in Marion, Iowa, are nearly filled with well over 100 people. They wear red “TED CRUZ” stickers, and they’ve jotted their names and emails on the “Cruz for President” sign-up sheet in the lobby. But it’s not the Texas-senator-turned-presidential-candidate who is in town tonight. It’s his father.
Rafael Cruz—76 years old, ruddy faced, putty nosed, mostly bald—wears a blue pinstripe suit, starched white shirt, yellow-and-blue patterned tie, and black wing tips. He speaks with a heavy Cuban accent—his Js curling into Ys, these shortened into dees, religious stretched into ree-lih-joos. He has no notes, no teleprompter. He grips a small clicker in his left hand that controls a PowerPoint presentation projected on the wall behind him. The title is “Reclaiming America: Why Pastors (and Christians in general) need to be involved in the political arena.”
America was founded on a set of Judeo-Christian values, Rafael tells his audience, and today those values are under siege. For this, he lays the blame at the feet of the very people in this room. Pastors and people of faith have been silent for far too long, he says. They stood idly by when the Supreme Court in the 1960s banned school-sanctioned prayer and required Bible readings from public schools, and “as a result,” rates of teenage pregnancy and violent crime “skyrocketed.” The church did nothing after the high Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. And Christians sat on their hands as the Court paved the way to national gay marriage. “Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany said, ‘Silence in the face of evil is evil itself,‘“ Cruz says. “The question is: How long are we going to remain silent?”
He exhorts the crowd to stop making excuses—separation of church and state (which he calls “a lie”), the possibility of the IRS revoking a church’s tax-exempt status (“an empty threat”)—and to start electing people of faith and principle to public office. Everything they need to know is right there in the Bible, he says, down to how to vet a candidate, whether for city council or the U.S. presidency. (He quotes Exodus 18:21: Candidates must be “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness.”) His voice crescendos, listing off those pastors who fought in the American Revolution, and he asks, “Where are those pastors today?” The answer: “Hiding behind their pulpit.”
“It is about time,” he thunders, “that we become biblically correct instead of politically correct.”
Cruz’s speech lasts for close to an hour. At the end, he asks the audience to join him in a covenant, an agreement to one another. They repeat after Cruz, who mashes up the final words of the Declaration of Independence (“We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”) with a vow to “make America again that shining city on a hill.”
He never once mentions his son. But the man who follows him, a local pastor named Darran Whiting, announces that he is endorsing Ted Cruz for president and that everyone else should join him. Before repairing to the church gym for cookies and coffee and photos with Rafael, the audience joins Whiting in an a cappella version of “God Bless America.”
THERE IS NO ONE in American politics today quite like Rafael Cruz. He is, as you might expect of any politician’s father, a confidant to his son; Glenn Beck, a friend of the family who meets and prays with Rafael every few months, describes him as Ted’s “backbone, his strength.” But in a rare role for a father, he is also Ted’s most prominent and tireless surrogate on the campaign trail.
Rafael has spent recent months traveling around Iowa and South Carolina and Ohio and Florida at a grueling pace—on the road five or six days a week, three or four events per day. On his recent swing through Iowa, he told me he visited 18 cities in five and a half days. During his travels, he speaks to some of the most hard-line members of the Republican electorate—effectively serving as an even more conservative spokesman for the most conservative candidate in the race.
His audiences range from a dozen people at a Pizza Ranch in Dubuque to a hundred or more at a tea-party meeting in South Florida. Large or small, these appearances add up to something significant for Ted’s campaign: They constitute exactly the type of hand-to-hand politicking among the GOP’s most loyal voters that is needed to win in places like Iowa. And Rafael knows how to appeal to this crowd. “All things being equal, if Rafael Cruz is in the same room with other campaign surrogates, among the tea party he wins every time,” says Drew Ryun of the Madison Project, a conservative group that gave Ted Cruz the first PAC endorsement of his 2012 Senate run.
Rafael essentially gives the same two speeches over and over again. In churches, it’s the “Reclaiming America” presentation on why people of faith need to ramp up their involvement in politics. In nonreligious settings, it’s a more direct pitch for his son, a stem-winder that blends anecdote, healthy doses of American history refracted through a right-wing lens, and some unabashed salesmanship. (Pre-order Ted’s forthcoming book on Amazon right now, he told a crowd of Iowans, and get 32 percent off!)
The morning after I see him at Grace Baptist, I hear the more political speech. His first stop of the day is the city-council chambers in Monticello (population 3,811). This venue wasn’t originally on the schedule, but when the local county GOP chair heard that Rafael Cruz would be passing through in early June, he asked if he would stop in town. Rafael happily obliged.
He arrives at 8:30 a.m., chipper and vigorous, accompanied by his minder and driver for the week, the Cruz campaign’s Iowa director, Bryan English. Before this audience—consisting of a few dozen senior citizens and a local newspaper photographer—he describes his son’s passion for the Constitution as “a fire in his bones.” That fire, he insists, “is as alive today as it was 30 years ago.” Rafael tells the story of the time when then”“Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist interviewed Ted for a clerkship position. What Rehnquist really wanted to know, Rafael says, was how Ted managed to get recommendation letters from both Michael Luttig, one of the most conservative jurists in America (for whom Ted clerked), and Alan Dershowitz, the liberal Harvard Law School professor (under whom Ted studied). “I think that speaks to how Ted can unify America,” Rafael says.
For the most part, though, he speaks not of political unity but of ideological warfare. A few hours after his appearance in Monticello, he is in the basement of a farm-themed restaurant in nearby Dyersville, before a crowd of maybe a dozen geriatric tea-partiers. At every stop, he takes questions from the audience; here, the Q-and-A opens with a man in the audience yelling out, “Maybe you should run for vice president!” Later, another audience member asks, “How does Ted Cruz fit with the national Republican Party?”
“This may not be the answer you want,” Rafael responds, “but unfortunately, the national Republican Party has been backing the wrong kind of people for the last 40 years.” For too long, the party has thrown its weight behind “mushy moderates” who stand for nothing and can’t win elections. He puts Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney in this category. “Every time they pick a mushy moderate, we lose,” he adds. “And they don’t want to learn the lesson.”
He says he doubts the Republican establishment will see the foolishness of its ways. “I believe the RNC [Republican National Committee] this time again will go try to back a mushy moderate,” he predicts. “That is a sure way for us to lose.” (Later, he will tell the audience member one on one that “the RNC is part of the problem.”) The solution, he says to the crowd, is to rally the grassroots and unite conservatives of all stripes behind a candidate who will take the country in a completely “different direction.” It’s what Ronald Reagan did, and it’s what his son will do if he wins. “Now, if you’re representing the RNC, you probably don’t like my answer,” Cruz says with a chuckle. “But if you’re representing the tea party, you probably love it.”
It’s a vintage Rafael Cruz moment, the type of line that plays incredibly well before the red-meat crowd in the Republican primaries but could become a liability if Ted picks up momentum and appears to be within reach of the nomination. This is the same Rafael Cruz of the BuzzFeed listicle “The 68 Most Controversial Things Ted Cruz’s Dad Has Ever Said”; the same Rafael Cruz who compares Barack Obama to Fidel Castro, who says the Obama administration uses minorities “as pawns,” who says Hillary Clinton is an “Alinskyite,” who says gun control is a ploy to “impose a dictatorship upon us,” who says Planned Parenthood was created “for population control in the black neighborhoods,” who says climate change is “hocus-pocus,” and who says marriage equality is part of a larger “agenda to destroy America.”
That’s one Rafael Cruz. There’s also the Rafael Cruz that his son, Ted, describes: the political refugee who became a classic story of immigrant success, who “came here seeking freedom” and went on to “achieve the American dream,” as Ted put it in 2013; or the person who, midway through life, found Jesus, thereby transforming himself into a more loyal, more responsible, more family-oriented man. “Were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ,” Ted Cruz said in his presidential announcement speech at Liberty University in March, “I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household.”
It’s easy to view Rafael, in short, as a set of extreme clichés about conservatism or the immigrant experience or evangelical Christianity. As I learned about him, though, I began to realize that his story was far more complicated than you would know from just listening to what he and Ted say on the stump. It’s full of success and failure, booms and busts, love and death and regret. It’s a messy, winding, eminently human story—one that, depending on your point of view, either makes Rafael a hypocritical surrogate for Ted or an authentic, compelling, relatable one.
On my last evening in Iowa, I watch Rafael speak to a crowd of 80 at a Christian church in Waterloo. The church’s interior has rock-concert-style speakers hanging from the ceiling and a wall of multicolored stage lights. After an introduction by a local activist hell-bent on plugging his new documentary about the IRS, Cruz rises, clicker in hand, to give the same speech from the night before: Karl Marx, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Exodus 18:21, and so on.
Afterward, Rafael and English, his campaign chaperone, hang around for questions and photos before heading toward the exits. I catch up with them outside. For three weeks, I’ve pestered Ted’s campaign to let me interview Rafael, and since arriving in Iowa, I’ve repeatedly asked him in person for a formal interview as well. Now I ask again.
“You didn’t get enough material here?” he says cheerfully.
I ask yet another time, but English brushes me off. Take it up with the campaign’s press secretary, he says.
Rafael and I trade contact information. He tells me to send him my story when it comes out. Then he puts a hand on my shoulder. “Just tell the truth, my friend,” he says, before I trudge off to my rental car. “All you can do is tell the truth.”
EVENTUALLY, Rafael did talk to me, and we ended up spending a couple of hours on the phone, much of it filling in the details of his dramatic life story. He was born and raised a block from the beach in Matanzas, an hour east of Havana. His father cut cane on a sugar plantation, worked at a fruit stand, ran a grocery store, and sold appliances for RCA. (The year that television first came to Cuba, Rafael says, his father sold the most sets of anyone on the island.)
He grew up fishing and going to baseball games, but not long after General Fulgencio Batista seized control of the Cuban government in a coup, he joined the underground resistance as a teenager. The movement’s leader was a charismatic lawyer hiding out in the mountains named Fidel Castro. Ted Cruz once described his father as “a guerrilla, throwing Molotov cocktails and blowing up buildings.” (Rafael says they only threw Molotov cocktails at buildings that were empty or after hours.) Given up to Batista’s forces by an informant, Rafael was beaten for three or four days, his teeth bashed in, blood and mud covering each inch of his white suit. “By the grace of God,” he likes to say, the army released him in the hopes he would lead them to other members of the resistance. He had to flee the country.
A straight-A student, Rafael applied to three American universities and chose the first one that accepted him, the University of Texas, Austin. A lawyer friend finagled an exit permit to get him out of the country, and with a student visa issued by the U.S. Consulate in Cuba in hand, he arrived in the States in the fall of 1957 with $100—$846 in today’s dollars—to his name and knowing, depending on the telling, either very little or no English. He washed dishes and worked as a short-order cook at a Toddle House diner near campus, eating enough free food before, during, and after his eight-hour shift to last the other 16 hours. In order to learn English, he spent his first month in America—before classes began—camped out every evening in a movie theater watching films nonstop until closing time. “I would sit at the movies trying to associate words with actions and words with the objects,” he told me. “If somebody picked up a glass and called it ‘glass,’ I would say that thing you drink out of was called ‘glass.’ I learned English like a baby.”
He had not, however, lost his revolutionary zeal. As a student, Rafael railed against the Batista regime—and the U.S. government that supported it—and spoke out in favor of Castro at Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. He and five other Cuban students protested Washington’s decision to grant asylum to members of the Batista government following Castro’s takeover in January 1959. The students marched through the heart of Austin carrying a flag commemorating Castro’s movement; Rafael wore a sign that read, “Batista’s gang have paved their way into the U.S. with Cuban bodies.” The students delivered a letter to the Austin American vowing that granting asylum to Batista’s men “will leave a perennial stain upon the principles and ideals of the American nation.”
Rafael’s story caught the attention of a columnist for The Daily Texan, the campus newspaper. The resulting piece recounted his capture and torture in Cuba, the death of a close friend by Batista’s men, and his journey to Texas. The story describes Cruz as “slightly built,” noting that he wore “glasses and has a scar under his right eye. He shows a bashed nose and half of his upper denture is missing.” Cruz spoke broken English but “conversed in an articulate, well-bred Spanish.” Rafael, the columnist wrote, “exalted” Castro, fiercely disputing that the new leader was a communist. “Castro is a man of education,” he said. “He’s not ambitious for power.”
Cruz returned to Cuba in the summer of 1959 to visit his family. The trip changed everything he believed about Castro. “That same man that had been talking about hope and change,” he says in his stump speech, “was now talking about how the rich were evil, about how they oppressed the poor, and about the need to redistribute the wealth.” The Castro government closed newspapers and radio and television stations, seized land and businesses. Rafael’s mother, a sixth-grade teacher, feigned insanity, screaming and foaming at the mouth, to get out of her teaching job after the Castro regime ordered that all students be taught Marxism. Rafael left Cuba after three weeks and never went back. He told me that he returned to the venues in the United States where he’d praised Castro and apologized. (His sister, Sonia, who was later tortured for fighting the Castro regime, joined Rafael in Texas in 1962, followed by their parents in 1966 or 1967. Ted Cruz says Sonia is as fiery as his father; he affectionately calls her “mi tia loca“—”my crazy aunt.”)
Rafael graduated from U.T.-Austin with a bachelor’s in math in 1961. When his student visa expired, he was granted political asylum in the United States. He worked on software for the petroleum industry at IBM and at a consulting firm. He took a job in New Orleans, which is where he met Eleanor Darragh, who grew up in a blue-collar, Irish-Italian family in Delaware. The first in her family to go to college, Eleanor studied math at Rice University and was one of a few women in the burgeoning field of computer programming. She and Rafael married in 1969. Ted Cruz once told a crowd that his mother refused to learn typing, a common profession for women in that era, so that when male colleagues asked her to type up notes for them, she could reply: “I would love to help you out, but I don’t know how to type. I guess you’re going to have to use me as a computer programmer instead.” The couple followed the oil industry to energy-rich Calgary, the Houston of Canada. They started their own software company, R.B. Cruz and Associates, processing seismic data for small- and medium-sized oil companies so they could more quickly locate new oil reservoirs.
Gillian Steward, a onetime friend of the Cruzes in Calgary whose then-husband worked with Rafael and Eleanor, remembers the couple well. Reserved but easy to be around, Eleanor was the brains of the operation, while Rafael was the backslapping salesman who charmed prospective clients over lunch at Primo’s, the city’s lone Mexican joint. There weren’t a lot of Cubans in Calgary back then, Steward says, but Rafael never seemed ill at ease in his adopted home. (He even took Canadian citizenship.) “It didn’t seem to bother him that he was an unusual type,” she told me. In December 1970, Eleanor gave birth to her son, Rafael Edward, at the hospital across the street from their Spanish-style flat.
During this time, the Cruz family began to show signs of strain. Rafael drank too much and stayed out late, leading to confrontations with Eleanor. “I caused a lot of problems in my marriage because of my drinking,” he told me. In 1974, Rafael walked out on Eleanor and Ted, sold most of his shares in his and his wife’s business, and flew to Houston. As Ted said at his rollout speech at Liberty University, his father “decided he didn’t want to be married anymore, and he didn’t want to be a father to his three-year-old son.” (I spoke briefly to Eleanor on several occasions, but the Cruz campaign told her not to cooperate for this story, despite her wanting to be helpful.)
Initially, religion wasn’t much of a factor in the Cruz family’s life. But in Houston, during the period away from his family, a friend in the oil business took Rafael to a Baptist church. There, he told me, “I surrendered myself to Christ.” Soon after, he reunited with his wife and son—an episode that Ted casts as evidence of the hand of God in his life.
RAFAEL CRUZ’S SECOND great awakening took place sometime in the late 1970s—not a spiritual rebirth but a political one. It’s a staple of his stump speech. “Some of you may remember the Carter years,” he told a crowd in Monticello, Iowa. “Double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, double-digit interest rates, lines around the block to get gasoline.” The Carter administration, he went on, began to “institute policies that reminded me of that bearded dictator I left back in Cuba.” (Ironically, Eleanor Cruz had voted for Carter in 1976, a source of tension between her and Rafael.)
The 1980 campaign, and Ronald Reagan specifically, left a deep imprint on the Cruz household. The talk around the dinner table focused heavily on politics, on why voters needed to toss out “this leftist progressive Jimmy Carter,” as Rafael puts it. He recalls that Ted loved to sit with his parents and watch Reagan speak on television. Once, Rafael mentioned a chance encounter with a high school classmate of Ted’s: “He said, ‘You know, it’s weird, when Ted was 15, 16, all he talked about was Ronald Reagan.‘“
Through a client of Rafael’s, Ted hooked up with the Free Enterprise Institute, an organization that introduced middle and high school students to the works of conservative and libertarian thinkers like Adam Smith, Ludwig Von Mises, Milton Friedman, and John Locke. With the help of Rolland Storey, a retired oil executive who founded the institute, Ted and four other star pupils formed a group called the Constitutional Corroborators—for which they memorized all 4,543 words of the Constitution using mnemonic devices and traveled throughout Texas writing it out from memory in front of Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and afterward giving speeches extolling the virtues of free markets.
Ted, Rafael recalls, got a significant scholarship from Princeton and picked up odd jobs as a cameraman and a standardized-test tutor to pay his tuition. “We helped with whatever we could,” Rafael told me. “After a while, he basically said he’d just take care of it.” Indeed, as Ted’s star was rising throughout high school and college, his parents’ life was coming apart. The successful seismic-data software company Rafael and Eleanor had started in the mid-1970s, Explorer Seismic Services, went under a decade later, after the price of oil plummeted. “We started losing money, got totally cash poor, and in the end, we even lost our home,” Rafael says. Both he and Eleanor took commission-based jobs selling insurance, soda machines, and nutritional supplements. “That’s how we survived,” he recalls.
In May 1993, the couple separated, court records show. Rafael filed for divorce after several years. His divorce petition cites “discord and conflict of personality” without any chance of reconciliation as the reason for the divorce. The petition suggests that Rafael had little to his name at the time: a few thousand dollars in a bank account and some frequent-flier miles but no property, no pension, no car, no furniture.
In his stump speeches and presentations, Rafael rarely, if ever, mentions his divorce or this difficult period of his life. (Eleanor, who lives in the same apartment complex as Ted and Heidi Cruz, told me that she and Rafael “buried the hatchet” and are now friends who get dinner when Rafael is in Houston.) In Iowa, in response to a woman’s question about Ted’s citizenship, I heard Rafael refer to Eleanor as “my wife.” After another appearance, when a pastor asked Rafael about his family, he explained that he’d been divorced for 20 years. “I was traveling a lot outside of the country when Ted was in college, coming and going every few weeks,” he said. The travel destroyed his marriage. The divorce, he told the pastor, “is one of those things I regret.”
IN A RECENT INTERVIEW with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Rafael spoke of how he would stand over his young son, proclaiming the word of God. He told him: “You know, Ted, you have been gifted above any man that I know. And God has destined you for greatness.”
Hearing him speak today, Rafael retains the same unflappable belief in his son’s trajectory. On the campaign trail, however, I never saw him talk about his first family—a story that further complicates his life’s narrative.
Publicly, he says little about his life during this time, never mentioning his first wife, Julia Ann Garza, or the couple’s two daughters, Miriam and Roxana, born in 1961 and 1962, respectively. His first marriage was stormy, and he and Garza divorced after three years. “That was a very rough marriage,” he told me. “I was a sophomore in college, and I was very immature.” (Garza, a college professor, died in 2013.) The couple’s two daughters, Miriam and Roxana, lived with their mother during the school year, but they spent some summers with Rafael and Eleanor in Canada. Miriam and Roxana were eight and nine years older than young Ted, but that didn’t stop Rafael and Eleanor from insisting that the girls drag Ted along with them when they went out to meet their friends. “When you have a 6-year-old with you, it limits the mischief you can get into,” Ted Cruz told me recently.
When pieced together, interviews, public records, court filings, and other clues point to two very different paths in life for Rafael’s first two children. Roxana, the youngest, was smart, an overachiever. Blurbs in local newspapers noted that she had won a scholarship to join a scientific tour of the Galapagos Islands run by the University of Florida and was valedictorian of her high school class. She studied microbiology in college and trained in Mexico at the University of Monterrey’s medical school and at New York Medical College. A registered Democrat, Roxana works as an internist in the Dallas area. She and her husband didn’t respond to interview requests. I visited their home outside Dallas, but her husband said they weren’t talking to reporters and told me to leave. When I mentioned Roxana’s Democratic affiliation to Ted Cruz, he replied curtly: “Her politics and mine have always been quite different.” It was by far the shortest answer of our 20-minute conversation.
By contrast, Rafael’s eldest daughter, Miriam, lived what Ted Cruz described to me as “a troubled journey” and “a difficult path.” In September 1984, she married Larry Maykopet in Houston, giving birth to a son, Joseph Maykopet, four months later. The family later moved to Pennsylvania, but the marriage didn’t last. Miriam filed for divorce in 1990. Court records show that Larry spent time in a minimum-security prison in Illinois in the mid-1990s.
Miriam herself had repeated run-ins with the law. She was arrested and charged with numerous minor crimes, including retail theft, conspiracy to sell stolen goods, receiving stolen property, disorderly conduct for fighting, public intoxication, and making a false report to law enforcement. She was represented mostly by public defenders, and the courts filed multiple judgments against her over a 10-year span for failing to pay fines, costs, and restitution resulting from her various charges. She struggled to pay rent, and the IRS served her with a federal tax lien in March 2007 for almost $11,000.
In May 2011, Miriam died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, medication prescribed to her for anxiety and severe back pain. At the time of her death, she was facing trial for multiple pending civil charges. “She struggled her whole life with alcohol and drug addiction,” Ted told me. “She made a lot of poor decisions that made her life much, much more difficult.”
Her son, Joe, who turned 30 in January, told a reporter for McClatchy newspapers that he had been “close” with his Uncle Ted growing up and described their relationship as “a normal uncle/nephew relationship.” He said, “My uncle has probably been one of the bigger male figures in my life.” (I tried to reach Maykopet, but his phone number was disconnected.) When I asked about Miriam, Rafael relayed the particulars of her troubled life but did little reflecting. “That’s life,” was the most he would venture.
RAFAEL CRUZ COULDN’T have chosen a more fitting coming-out moment. It was April 15, 2009. At the time, he was a nobody in Texas politics; Ted was only slightly better known, as the state’s former solicitor general and a talented lawyer who’d been giving talks to young conservatives groups while making noises about getting into politics. But through a grassroots activist named Ken Emanuelson, Rafael scored an invitation to speak at the first major TEA Party rally—back when “TEA” stood for “Taxed Enough Already”—on the front steps of Dallas City Hall. No one knew what to expect, and Rafael was told to get up there and tell his life story. That would be enough.
As it turned out, thousands of people showed up. And Rafael brought down the house with his story of escaping Cuba—he elided the fact that it was Batista, not Castro, he had initially fled from—and becoming a devotee of Ronald Reagan. “We can do it again,” he proclaimed. “We are not going to cower down and succumb to socialism.” The crowd ate up every word.
In the coming years, Rafael’s stature among Texas conservatives grew as he became the go-to spokesman for his son’s 2012 Senate campaign against heavily favored Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Looking back, it almost seems that the nearly simultaneous rise of Ted and Rafael in Texas conservative circles was symbiotic. For Ted, having a dad who was a tea-party star proved quite convenient. After all, in a primary to be decided by the reddest of Republican voters in Texas, Ted—who claimed just 2 percent support in early polls—did not necessarily have an ideal biography. Two Ivy League degrees, a Supreme Court clerkship, a lead role in writing a decidedly moderate immigration platform for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, jobs in Bush’s administration, a wife employed by Goldman Sachs: His bio screamed establishment Republican.
Rafael first stepped in to speak at an event in West Texas that his son couldn’t make, and he was a hit. “A few hours later,” Ted told National Review, “I called and asked how it went. He said, ‘Even surrogates for the other candidates were asking for Cruz yard signs.‘“ Rafael went on to wear many hats—the hype man introducing his son at rallies, campaign adviser, body double of sorts. “Rafael has his own following,” says Steve Munisteri, the former chair of the Republican Party of Texas. “People will say, ‘We just want to come to see Rafael Cruz.‘“ With his father’s help, Ted narrowly forced a runoff and went on to win the primary by 14 points. Katrina Pierson, a prominent tea-party activist and friend of Rafael’s who ran for Congress in 2014, says, “A lot of people will tell you Rafael’s the main reason they love Ted.”
Volunteers and staffers from Ted’s Senate campaign describe Rafael as a wise, old fatherly figure to them. “My mom was young when she had me, and I was raised by my grandparents from early on, so he’s been my filler-in,” Pierson says. “He has so much guidance because of all the things he went through.”
As he stumped for his son statewide and continued speaking after Ted’s win, the thumbnail biography that followed Rafael from event to event offered few details about his life outside of politics. He was the director of Purifying Fire Ministries, out of Carrollton, Texas, north of Dallas. He was a professor of the Bible and theology at either the Advance Bible Institute or the Advance Institute. And he was the president of a Spanish-language Bible translation company named Kingdom Translation Services.
Today, wherever he goes, Rafael is introduced as a pastor or a reverend, either with Purifying Fire Ministries, an outdated affiliation, or with a more recently formed organization named Grace for America. (Though he is nondenominational, he has been identified over the years with a movement known as Christian Dominionism. In a 2012 sermon posted online, Rafael preached that Christians are “anointed” to “take dominion” of every aspect of life on Earth—”society, education, government, and economics”—and to one day take control of the government and create a theocracy. He has also spoken about an end-time wealth transfer, in which God will redistribute the wealth of the world from nonbelievers to believers in the lead-up to Christ’s second coming.) I asked Rafael about some of his affiliations. He told me that Purifying Fire and Grace for America are merely the names for his traveling preaching business, which is based out of his apartment. He was ordained by Ralph Holland, a Christian missionary based in the Dallas area; the professorship, he told me, refers to a short stint teaching the Bible in Spanish as part of a now-defunct program run by Holland.
As for Kingdom Translation Services, it was established in early 2012, according to county records. Rafael told me he started the company to put an official name on the side business he’d conducted for more than two decades, translating everything from religious documents to legal contracts for various clients. The website for Audio Bible, a Florida-based company, sells three of his Spanish-language Bible recordings ranging from $32 to $63 in price. Rafael told me that today he uses Kingdom Translation Services for the “little bit” of translation he still does for a few clients.
Rafael does not appear to have gotten rich in his role as a preacher, professor, and translator. In 2008, the IRS filed a federal tax lien against him for more than $16,000 in delinquent taxes. Rafael told me that he was in the middle of negotiating a payment plan with the IRS when the lien was filed and that Ted loaned him the money to pay off the lien right away.
For the most part, Rafael told me, he lives on the cheap and gets by on his monthly Social Security check, with the occasional honorarium or speaking fee for his preaching gigs and the odd translating job. His son’s campaign pays his travel costs when he’s stumping for Ted. If he had his way, Rafael says, he’d be working full-time for his son, an idea he once pitched to Ted. “I said, ‘I would love to work for you in the Senate,‘“ Rafael recalls. “He said, ‘Dad, I cannot hire you. There’s something called the anti-nepotism rule in the Senate.’ He said, ‘I can’t hire a relative.‘“ How, then, did John Kennedy appoint his brother, Bobby, to serve as attorney general, Rafael wanted to know? “You know what Ted said? ‘That’s why we have the rule, Dad.‘“
“YOU’RE A GLUTTON for punishment,” Rafael Cruz says after seeing me in the audience and walking over to shake my hand. A few weeks after trailing him in Iowa, I’ve rejoined his road show at the sprawling Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, a 75-acre campus that features a K–12 school, Chili’s-style restaurant, and baseball diamond. He’s here working South Florida’s I-95 corridor for four 16-hour days of speeches, lunches, radio appearances, and pep talks. He hasn’t seen the inside of his Dallas condo in weeks. “I had to pack two suitcases this time,” he says.
The setting is different, but Cruz sticks to the two scripts I heard in Iowa. He launches into his “Reclaiming America” presentation to an audience of 40 at Calvary Chapel, ripping into pastors who “hide behind their pulpits” and exhorting Christians to rise up and vote the Democrats out of office. During the Q-and-A, he slams President Obama’s Cuba policy (“absolutely disastrous”) and calls for greater fortification of the U.S.-Mexico border (“We cannot keep the gate open and allow another 9/11 to happen”). The Q-and-A ends, and everyone bows their heads and closes their eyes for a participatory group prayer, in which one audience member accuses the president of replacing Christian prayer with Islamic prayer in the White House and another rails against “the communist media system in this country.”
The next morning, Cruz is the Palm Beach County Tea Party’s guest of honor at a local library. His warm-up act is a New Zealander named Trevor Loudon, the author of Barack Obama and the Enemies Within (the cover features a hammer and sickle) and The Enemies Within: Communists, Socialists and Progressives in the U.S. Congress. When Loudon recommends that Ted Cruz announce his presidential Cabinet now—Michele Bachmann for Commerce, Rand Paul for Treasury, Scott Walker for Labor, and Allen West for Defense, for starters—the crowd of 30 squeals with delight.
Rafael, for his part, evokes Hitler’s rise to warn against churches that don’t get politically active: “Hitler was very smart. Hitler went to the pastors and pat them in the back, and he said, ‘Look, you take care of their souls, I’ll take care of the rest of it.’ … The church bought it hook, line, and sinker, and as a result of that, 6 million Jews were massacred.” Many faith leaders and their worshippers are no wiser today, he contends: “Unfortunately, in the Northeast, the Jews are Democrats first and Jews second. And this is what has happened to a great many in the Catholic Church.”
Once again, it was the Rafael Cruz of YouTube notoriety, the Bible-thumping fire-breather who seems bound to eventually cause his son’s campaign major trouble. (In fact, two days later, Talking Points Memo would publish a three-minute clip of Cruz’s comment about Northeast Jews, captured by the Democratic opposition-research shop American Bridge.)
The political peril of such rhetoric speaks for itself, of course. And yet, after trailing him across two states, eight cities, and ten events, I came to believe that there was something more to Rafael Cruz than his provocative sound bites. The truth was, I found a likeable side to the guy. He is grandfatherly, quick to make a joke, a happy warrior. Unlike his son—whose debating brilliance and lightning-quick reasoning can make him seem almost robotic—Rafael isn’t stiff. He makes easy small talk and has one-on-one political skill in abundance. Indeed, in a state like Iowa, where so much of the caucus result is decided via the slow work of persuading individual voters, it seems possible that Rafael’s true gift to his son might not be his ability to speak to very conservative audiences but rather the general bonhomie he brings to the campaign trail.
After one of his nighttime talks, he asks about my evening plans. Find a cheap motel, I reply, maybe grab a beer. “Remember,” he tells me jokingly, “you can’t soar with the eagles in the morning if you hoot with the owls at night.”
Corny? Totally. But also sort of endearing. And he was that way not just with me, a reporter writing a profile of him, but with the elderly ladies and Obama-hating tea-partiers and anyone else who hung around after his appearances. On his way out of an event once, he put an arm around one of his Florida chaperones, a tea-partier named Danita Kilcullen, and gently asked her, “Can I put you in a little suitcase and take you with me?”
The last time I see Rafael Cruz speak is on the far western fringe of Miami, where civilization ends and the Everglades begin. The venue is called Rancho Bejucal, an expanse of farmland with horses, looming palm trees, and an open-air thatch-roofed pavilion at the front of the property with a stage on one end and a cantina serving beer and traditional Cuban fare on the other. I’m late arriving, and I can hear Cruz thundering in Spanish through the car windows. It’s well over 90 degrees, the humidity pudding-thick. The crowd is almost entirely Cuban. The men and women sit around picnic tables in the pavilion’s shade, fanning themselves with Styrofoam plates and Panama hats.
In theory, this should be friendly terrain for Cruz—a Cuban émigré speaking to a hundred of his fellow Cubans. Yet the crowd is hot and restless, and the appearance soon takes an unexpected turn. Cruz is talking about light and liberty when, midsentence, a pint-sized bald man in big sunglasses bounds onstage and rips the microphone from Cruz’s hands.
“Your son is a fascist!” he yells in rapid-fire Spanish. “An anti-Latino! A Cruz by chance! I forgive you for giving him your last name, but he doesn’t deserve it! I hope this man’s son is never president!”
The emcees intervene and Cruz manages to say a few final words before shuffling offstage, replaced by a band that hastily launches into Cuban country songs. There’s animosity from others, too; one couple gets in Cruz’s face and calls Ted an extremist.
I catch up with Cruz and his minder as they’re walking to the car afterward. Despite looking flustered onstage, he is back to happy-warrior mode when I ask him about the scuffle. “What I said to him is that we still have the freedom in this country to have someone disagree with you,” he says. “He couldn’t do that in Cuba.”
He says a few more things about free speech and the greatness of America and then climbs into a white SUV with a “Ted Cruz 2016” sticker on the trunk. His next event is at a Baptist church an hour and a half away. If he doesn’t leave now, he’ll be late.