DECORAH, Iowa — It was the most legendary moment in Ted Cruz’s young political career, winning him legions of never-going-to-leave-you activists, never-going-to-forget-this enemies and cementing the freshman senator’s stature as a national phenomenon: the October 2013 government shutdown.
More than two years later, the fight to force the White House’s hand to defund Obamacare that left both Republican leadership and federal employees seething has faded into the background, rather than Cruz’s calling card.
On the trail, Cruz promises to repeal Obamacare, and his entire stump speech is essentially a takedown of a Washington power structure that is too timid to fight — by any means necessary — for what conservatives back at home actually want.
But on his six-day Iowa tour last week, Cruz didn’t mention the shutdown once. It hasn’t come up in the debates. Undecided voters don’t ask about it in town halls.
And some supporters of his at events, who only paid attention to Cruz when he launched his campaign for president in March, couldn’t exactly put their finger on why they had heard of him before.
Cathy Peake, 55, didn’t remember a shutdown (“Not specifically, no.”)
“I follow Ted Cruz pretty closely,” Jeanette Dietzenbach, a church musician, said as she waited to hear him speak here in a pizza shop’s basement, “but not as far back as 2013.”
Clifford Bullerman, 71, didn’t remember it either when asked by a reporter, but went on at length about the 2011 shutdown in Minnesota, which he said “was avoidable.”
To be sure, there are Republican diehards who recall it with fondness, recollecting Cruz’s decision to read “Green Eggs & Ham” from the Senate floor as he lambasted the Affordable Care Act as a millstone on the American economy.
Joel Hefti, 47, first heard of Cruz during the Obamacare debate. “He strongly opposed it, and he was one of the few that actually stood up — and didn’t waffle,” Hefti told CNN.
And other admirers, even if they don’t recollect the shutdown specifically, flock to him because he has shown the spine to stand up to Washington, including on Obamacare.
“People want a candidate who has a backbone and who’s not afraid to make a decision — whether it was the right one or the wrong one, he’s all in,” said Brian Logie, 35.
The shutdown endeared Cruz to much of the professional right, from the rabble-rousing Senate Conservatives Fund, whose leaders are organizing on his behalf, to the Club for Growth, some of whose donors have been his biggest backers. And several of the House Republicans who also sought a shutdown have endorsed his presidential campaign.
But it is also likely to have political consequences: The shutdown — and effort to defund Obamacare — is sure to be rich fodder for any Democratic nominee in November.
And the shutdown has alienated him from contributors with ties to Wall Street or Washington lobbyists who serve as some of the nation’s most prominent bundlers. None of his fellow senators have endorsed him, some still reeling from the fracas two years later.
Has everyone just moved on?
Cruz’s closest allies maintain that he isn’t running away from it, but that he, and his voters, have moved on.
“Why stick it into the dialogue when you’ve got so much future policy to discuss?” asked Rep. Steve King, his top backer in Iowa and a brother-in-arms during the 2013 fight, which he said was wrongly laid at Cruz’s feet. “There’s no upside to talking about things that will be mischaracterized.”
The Obamacare fights, of which Cruz writes in his most recent book that “no battle has consumed more energy,” are only gently and occasionally flicked at. When asked to draw a contrast with Trump here at Mabe’s Pizza, Cruz argued that he was campaigning in the true “Iowa way,” and also rattled off a series of fights that showed his mettle while others ran away from.
“Who actually has stood up on Washington?” Cruz said, beginning his usual riff on the highlights of his Senate career. “In 2013, when millions of Americans rose up against the disaster that was Obamacare and is Obamacare, I was proud to stand and lead that fight. You look at the other men and women standing on that debate stage, the natural question is: Where were they?”
It may be that Cruz does not see the shutdown today as a political winner: Twice as many people had unfavorable opinions of Cruz during the throes of the shutdown than had favorable ones, and polls taken after the impasse majorly damaged voters’ impressions of the Republican Party — even among Republicans and tea party supporters.
Scott Reed, the top political strategist for the Chamber of Commerce, which strongly opposed the Cruz gambit, said it had likely receded from the country’s political conscience because of the GOP’s success in the subsequent midterm elections.
“I’m not surprised it’s not a fever on the campaign trail,” said Reed. “It was a long time ago, and we had a great election in the meantime — so it kind of overshadowed that critical buffoonery.”