AUSTIN, Texas — Ted Cruz ran a surprisingly effective presidential campaign in 2016. It sometimes sounds like he still is.
The Texan is seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate by pledging to repeal Barack Obama's signature health care law, abolish the IRS and beat back federal overreach — even though the Trump administration has already diluted the health law, delivered sweeping tax cuts and code revisions and controls Washington along with a Republican-led Congress.
Unmentioned — almost as if he hadn't noticed — is that the political world has been turned upside down around him. Indeed, Cruz, virtually alone among candidates here, barely refers to President Donald Trump and his paradigm-shifting repercussions since the election.
While other Texas political hopefuls want to tap into Trump's strong popularity with the Republican base, Cruz is sticking to his greatest policy hits, calculating that he has the stature to remain above the fray and can stick to the playbook that carried him from GOP primary also-ran to second place finisher in his first run for the White House. It's an agenda that would transition smoothly to another possible presidential run after 2020.
"Freedom doesn't defend itself," Cruz declared, drawing applause from a crowd of 200-plus inside an automatic mailing firm's headquarters in Austin, one of 12 cities where Cruz recently staged re-election kickoff rallies over three days.
The aloof approach especially suits Cruz, a strident tea party hero who delighted in infuriating both parties' congressional powerbrokers before Trump arrived to unhinge them even more. He bitterly opposed Trump at the end of the 2016 presidential campaign, was booed for refusing to endorse him at the Republican National Convention but eventually fell in line.
While Trump has careened away from some traditional GOP beliefs by supporting free market-busting tariffs, racking up federal debt and shrugging off family values and morality standards, Cruz can claim to have been an unflinching conservative all along.
"Steering clear of Trump allows him to be more about Cruz," said GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser, a former national tea party organizer who directed the 2014 re-election campaign of Texas' senior senator, John Cornyn.
Cruz's stance differs from some other high-profile conservatives thought to have future presidential aspirations. Rather than keep his distance, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has been outspokenly critical of the president and his volatile tweet eruptions, and could tap into Republicans looking for a new direction post-Trump. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley may emerge as top evangelists for Trump's post-presidency legacy.
Of Cruz, "it's early to say if what he's doing will play into how he's perceived as a national leader," Steinhauser said.
Someone else Cruz often ignores while campaigning is Democrat Beto O'Rourke, who is giving up his El Paso congressional seat to challenge Cruz. A bilingual, former punk rocker, O'Rourke garnered national attention for his energetic rallies and for frequently out-fundraising Cruz, even while shunning donations from outside political groups and special interests.
But O'Rourke failed to capture 40 percent of Democratic votes during Texas' March 6 primary against two little-known opponents while Cruz took 85 percent of GOP ballots, suggesting a Texas-sized name recognition gap with the incumbent.
O'Rourke said Cruz can't ignore the White House's current occupant while promoting his own record: "He's one of the primary enablers and abettors of this Trump administration."
"I don't know what his strategy is other than he's running for president," O'Rourke said.
Cruz has a new campaign slogan, "Tough as Texas," and uses it to highlight the heroism of people who rushed to aid their neighbors after Hurricane Harvey, as well as two citizens who helped bring to a stop a mass shooting in the town of Sutherland Springs. But his campaign stickers only feature Cruz's name and slogan, not mentioning 2018 or the office he's running for. During a stop along the Texas-Mexico border, he was even introduced as "President Cruz."
Cruz picked the venue for his Austin rally because he said it was an example of a small business hindered by Obama's health care law. He also frequently calls conservative talk radio stations across Texas to agree with hosts fuming about Republicans failing to keep their conservative promises.
Richard Brook, a 58-year-old semi-retired entrepreneur who supported Cruz in 2016 and attended the Austin event, said being a solid conservative is even more important given Trump's inconsistency.
"I don't really want him to start changing his views now," Brook said of Cruz.
Cruz doesn't hesitate to borrow some Trump talking points, supporting a border crackdown and tax cuts. But he's also not shy about making an independent case for himself.
"In Texas, we believe in low taxes, low regulation, low debt," Cruz told the crowd in Austin. "We want Washington D.C. the heck off our backs."