Ted Cruz And His Texas Electorate At Odds On Immigration

When it comes to selling Texas Latinos on the Republican Party, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz would seem like a natural. But even though he is the son of a Cuban refugee, Cruz is much closer to his Tea Party supporters' hard line on immigration than he is to the Republicans who are urging a more accommodating position for the sake of the party's future.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Happy 4th of July. And we begin the hour by taking the nation's political temperature on a couple of points. First, immigration, and how that issue is playing in a key border state. In our series, Texas 2020, we've been covering the implications of changing demographics. One of the rising political stars in Texas is the son of a foreign-born father and American mother.

He lived years of his childhood abroad. He went to Harvard Law School and became a U.S. senator. Despite those biographical parallels with President Obama, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz finds a base of support in the world of Tea Party politics. Here's NPR's David Welna with a profile.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Before voting against the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill last week,Texas Republican Ted Cruz had a point to make.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: Illegal immigration is an enormous problem. It's an enormous problem in my home state of Texas.

WELNA: Cruz, whose father is a legal immigrant from Cuba, rejected the bill's promised path to citizenship for some 11 million unauthorized immigrants, four-fifths from Latin America.

CRUZ: There needs to be a consequence for having violated the law. It is unfair, in my opinion, to the millions of legal immigrants who followed the rules, who stayed in line, who stayed in their home country years or decades to reward those who broke the law with a path to citizenship.

WELNA: That hardline stance puts Cruz at odds with some fellow Texas Republicans who do support the immigration bill. They warn it's political suicide for Republicans to fight it in a state that's already 40 percent Hispanic and it's becoming more so every year and where two out of three Latinos vote Democratic. Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land is one of the Republicans urging their freshman senator to reverse course.

RICHARD LAND: What I'd say is, Senator Cruz, you need to understand that the majority of your constituents do not agree with you on this and you need to examine what's best for Texas.

WELNA: Texas Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, is even blunter. Ted Cruz, he says, has turned his back on fellow Latinos.

GILBERTO HINOJOSA: He's taken a position that is contrary to the interest of the Latino population in the state of Texas. I mean, you know, if you poll Latinos in the state of Texas, overwhelmingly they support immigration reform.

WELNA: In an interview, Cruz insists there are far more important things for Congress to spend its time on than immigration.

CRUZ: We asked Hispanic voters in Texas - not just every voter, but Hispanic voters in Texas - what's your number one issue? Five percent said immigration. Fifty-four percent said jobs and the economy.

WELNA: Rice University political scientist Mark Jones says, in any case, Cruz may not have to worry about angering Hispanic voters in Texas because they are not his core constituency.

MARK JONES: Ted Cruz never campaigned as a Hispanic politician. He campaigned as a conservative politician who happened to be Hispanic.

WELNA: In a May interview with ABC News, former New Mexico Democratic Governor Bill Richardson, whose mother is Mexican, questioned whether Cruz should even be seen as a Latino.

BILL RICHARDSON: I don't think he should be defined as a Hispanic. He's a politician from Texas, a conservative state.

WELNA: But Cruz points to his election to the Senate last November as clear evidence he has substantial support among Hispanic Texans.

CRUZ: They'll tell you at the same time Romney was getting clobbered in the Hispanic community, in Texas, I was very pleased to get the support of substantially more than 40 percent of the Hispanic voters in Texas.

WELNA: Southern Methodist University political analyst Cal Jillson says, as a Hispanic, Cruz did not exactly rally the Latino vote in Texas.

CAL JILLSON: He did do better than Romney, but he didn't do nearly as well as a Democratic Latino candidate might do, say, one of the Castro brothers from San Antonio.

WELNA: One of those Castro brothers, Joaquin, was elected to Congress last year. He says Ted Cruz's victory at the polls is much more about his Tea Party ties than his Hispanic surname.

REPRESENTATIVE JOAQUIN CASTRO: In Texas, the Tea Party and the Republican Party have essentially merged. The Tea Party absolutely dominates and controls the Republican Party in Texas.

WELNA: And Rice's Jones says Texas for Cruz is really only a somewhat neglected stepping stone.

JONES: Cruz, I think, is focusing much more on national politics than he is on Texas politics. His influence here within the state is relatively modest. He's not a major player in Texas politics.

WELNA: Before the immigration debate, Cruz had already made a big splash in national politics, going after Chuck Hagel at the Defense Secretary's February confirmation hearing.

CRUZ: It may be that he spoke at radical or extreme groups or anti-Israel groups and accepted financial compensation. We don't know.

WELNA: The unfounded accusations prompted comparisons of Cruz to disgraced former Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. Cruz brushes them off.

CRUZ: You know, people are welcome to throw whatever insults they like. That is part of politics. You don't get in this business if you have thin skin.

WELNA: And if you're Ted Cruz, you also don't flinch when voting against an immigration bill that some Republicans consider crucial for their party's survival in places like Texas. David Welna, NPR News.

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