AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - As Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz hit the campaign trail before his victory on Tuesday in a Republican U.S. Senate primary runoff, he often told the story of his father fleeing Cuba and coming to Texas with just $100 sewn into his underwear.
But the 41-year-old lawyer who became a national Republican star by beating the Texas Republican establishment pick, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, also talks about how every American family has a story like his father’s.
Like Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American Republican senator from Florida, Cruz does not emphasize his ethnic background even though it is the elephant in the room, said Harvey Kronberg, editor of Texas political newsletter, the Quorum Report.
“He puts it more as an American success story than he does as any element, per se, of ethnic pride,” Kronberg said of Cruz.
Cruz, a former state solicitor general who has never held elected office, would become the first Hispanic U.S. senator from Republican-dominated Texas if as expected he defeats Democrat Paul Sadler in the November 6 general election.
“He just has an enormous future,” said Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican consultant. “Truly limitless at this point.”
On the campaign trail, Cruz spoke of reducing the size of government, repealing President Barack Obama’s healthcare law and working to “defend liberty” and “restore the Constitution.”
He campaigned with the backing of national conservative figures such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and national groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks that funneled money and volunteers to his campaign.
Dewhurst, who had the support of key Republicans like Texas Governor and former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, had dismissed Cruz as not having enough experience and running a campaign that depended on “Washington insiders.”
As solicitor general, Cruz helped fight the nation’s culture wars as Texas’ chief lawyer before federal courts including the U.S. Supreme Court. He worked to successfully defend the constitutionality of a monument to the Ten Commandments on the Texas State Capitol grounds, and the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Cruz became the second young Hispanic Texan to be propelled into the national political spotlight this week. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, 37, a Democrat, was selected to be the keynote speaker at his party’s national convention in September.
Cruz speaks of how his father, Rafael, was beaten in a Cuban jail, fled that country in 1957, became a dishwasher in Texas and put himself through the University of Texas. Cruz has said his father was fighting against dictator Fulgencio Batista, on the same side as revolutionary Fidel Castro, but that he later renounced Castro.
“When I was a kid, over and over again my dad used to say, ‘When we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to,’” Cruz said at a Tea Party gathering near Dallas last month. “If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?”
Katrina Pierson, a Dallas-area activist for the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, said that when Dewhurst accused Cruz of being connected to groups that support an amnesty for illegal immigrants, Cruz fought back by explaining his policy views.
“He didn’t fall into that trap of trying to defend himself by using his Hispanic heritage,” she said. “He doesn’t play into racial politics.”
But Trey Martinez Fischer, the Democratic chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus at the Texas Capitol, said that Latinos, who now represent 38 percent of the state’s population, would see that Cruz was out of step with their priorities.
“All I’ve seen on the campaign trail from Ted Cruz is, ‘No, no, no,’ and you can’t fix a state like Texas by just getting up and saying no to the president of the United States,” he said.
Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta, where his parents were working in the oil and gas industry, but he grew up in Houston. His foreign birth means that he may not be eligible to become president under the Constitution.
His mother, Eleanor, who has Irish and Italian roots, was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and moved with her family during high school to Houston. She studied math at Rice University, becoming the first person in her family to go to college.
Cruz was a debate champion at Princeton University before attending Harvard Law School. He and his wife, Heidi, live in Houston and have two young daughters.
Some Republicans are hoping Cruz will speak at the Republican National Convention, when former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is expected to be nominated for president.
“You have to wonder if there’s going to be a possibility of Cruz upstaging the actual candidate at the national convention,” Kronberg said.
Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Cooney