Inside Ted Cruz's Sad Election Eve Party

Checking in on the GOP nominee who could have been

Monday night could have been huge for Ted Cruz. Instead he spent it at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the Houston suburbs. Credit: Sean Rayford/Getty

In Ted Cruz's headcanon, the night of November 7th, 2016, was to be a pivotal moment, an emotional high as he neared the culmination of a decades-long personal ambition. He'd hold his final rallies and return to his campaign's headquarters in Texas, to converse with friends old and new, to make a pithy and memorable speech for the benefit of future historians, and to await the judgment of history.

Instead, Cruz is spending election eve in the cramped event room of a suburban Tex-Mex restaurant in west Houston, taking pictures with a few dozen supporters while they pick their way through troughs of melted cheese and taco meat.

It's a strange time to be Ted Cruz: His failed presidential bid has stripped him of some measure of the sense of invincibility he carried around the state. Is he gunning for his next presidential run? Sure, probably. But he looks newly vulnerable to a challenge in 2018, either from Republicans in the primary – Congressman Michael McCaul is sometimes mentioned – or even from Democrats. His best friends from the primary have either soured on him, like Glenn Beck, or abandoned him for Donald Trump, like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

So on the night before the election he once hoped to win, he shows up at the restaurant in the Spring Branch neighborhood newly humbled, and coming to grips with the awareness that much of the strength he had built up since first winning office has eroded, due to his own mistakes, and may not easily come back. He's seemed off-balance and adrift in recent weeks, first hiding from media in far-flung parts of the state and then agreeing at the last minute to campaign for Trump, mostly delivering the same stump speech he did in the primary, a version of which he gave Monday night.

What happened to you, Ted? For years Cruz-watching was essential for the left in part because he felt, finally, like a sparring partner. Among the tweedledees and tweedledums of the reactionary class in Congress, like Louie Gohmert and Marsha Blackburn, Cruz played the role of Ernst Stavro Blofeld with his white cat, somebody who, even if he lacked the essential characteristics of a good politician in many respects – charisma, warmth – had an unusual combination of intelligence and cunning and was willing to use it in unpredictable ways.

He cultivated that image carefully, and it was easy at times to imagine, looking past the bluster and ego, that here was someone to reckon with, to watch.

But then he ran for president, as he had been planning to do since he graduated from his childhood Speak & Spell. He spent too long drafting in Donald Trump's slipstream, cynically imagining he'd replace him when Trump eventually lost his nerve. That killed whatever chance he had at the nomination, but the errors that followed compounded his problems. Where spineless, robotic Rubio had the good sense to do nothing at all this summer, Cruz made the effort to go to Trump's coronation in Cleveland and then roasted him in primetime, in a speech that was as much about pique as principle.

The blowback from Texas conservatives, the foundation of his world, was immediate and massive, surprising even his team and advisors. Turns out these people didn't love Ted – or conservatism, really – as much as he thought, or at any rate, they liked Trump's hallucinogenic ravings just as much. So Cruz-whisperer Jeff Roe, his top strategist, convinced him to do an about-face. Back in the spring, Cruz would tell anyone who'd listen that the media would bury Trump in October, if he were made the nominee. There was too much dirt out there that hadn't yet surfaced. Correct for once, Cruz then inexplicably endorsed Trump at the end of September, shortly before the Access Hollywood tape dropped.

Life comes at you fast. He wasn't Blofeld after all; he may not even have been Dr. Evil. Far from the apprehension and anger he once stoked in his enemies, he began to elicit mocking pity, which, as Jeb Bush will tell you, is not ideal. In a little under four years, he'd gone from nobody to superstar to meme.

So here he is, milling around the Acapulco Bar, the upstairs quadrant of the Cafe Adobe, one of those restaurants with a metric ton of plaster molding and piped-in mariachi music. While Trump and Clinton square off in an apocalyptic cross-country duel, here Cruz is in a shopping mall, very far from the center of the political universe but somewhere near the center of the triangle formed by Spring Branch's Dave & Buster's, LA Fitness and IMAX theater, competing for attention with an ancient television playing the Bills-Seahawks game and a buffet line.

These are the little rooms in which Cruz built his political career at the outset, and he's always stuck by the folks. But he graduated from them at a certain point. For much of the last year-and-a-half, he drew crowds of hundreds, or thousands, in far-flung corners of the nation, and adulation from conservative commentators. Now he's back where he started, working to be let back into the fold.

"This is him going back to the grassroots, one-on-one, and that's what he had to do," says state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a prominent Houston conservative. The convention speech was a mistake, sure, but not an uncorrectable one. "Everybody wants everybody to come home. That's really what the Republican Party is about." The reconciliation process has been generally effective, he thinks, and Cruz's reception at the Cafe Adobe is "positive."

But not universally so: Mike Pollak, a local Republican precinct chair with a low voice and a prospector's beard, jumps in. He supported Cruz in the primary but never had a problem with Trump. "He made a mistake making that speech. It was terrible, just terrible," he says. "You can't be a Republican if you can't endorse Republican candidates." Cruz "figured it out" eventually, Pollack says, but it's softened his outlook on the man for good. He likes McCaul OK, and he can't say who he'll support when the next primary comes.

Most at the event feel better about Ted, who's the major draw of the event. He retains his preternatural ability to communicate with conservatives in these small rooms. Tom Kiper, a longtime supporter who's seeing Cruz in person for the first time, has come away severely impressed by Cruz's message and abilities. If Clinton's able to rig and win the election by amassing the illegal votes of non-citizens, he says, Cruz would make a fine choice next time. Everyone willing to talk in Spring Branch sees Cruz's endorsement of Trump as the necessary and right thing to do, even if for some it wasn't quite enough.

The adoration of these crowds means more to Cruz than anything in the world – it must be a strange thing for him to know they now demand his permanent fealty to the man who called his wife ugly and his father an assassin's accomplice. But given how much else Cruz has risked and sacrificed for his presidential ambitions, why not whatever's left of his self-respect?

Eventually restaurant staff come round to collect the queso tray – nothing gold can stay – and to sweep broken chips off the floor. And there, in the emptying room, stands chastened Ted, taking pictures and shaking hands with every last voter. It'll take a lot of work and a lot of indignity to power through this wilderness, but if anyone wants it enough, it's him.

R.I.P. GOP. Watch Ted Cruz's rise and fall.