McALLEN — Long used to enrapturing friendly crowds in the reddest parts of beet-red Texas, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz came to the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday with a less familiar task: finding a receptive audience in one of the state's few remaining Democratic bastions.
During a daylong swing through this border city, the 2016 Republican presidential candidate talked tough on the border and sought to appeal to a group of doctors with his clarion call for repealing President Barack Obama's signature health care law, all while keeping in check expectations for a county that re-elected the president by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
"Pretty good turnout," one doctor remarked after hearing Cruz speak, "for a Democratic stronghold."
Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, has long rebuffed Democratic criticism that he has limited appeal to Latino voters, boasting that he won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas during a year in which his party's presidential nominee garnered six points less.
After attending a briefing with law enforcement officials, Cruz again reminded reporters he is no stranger to Texas' Hispanic communities, pointing out that he has visited south Texas 10 times since he began his Senate run more than three years ago. And he suggested 2016 contenders who ignore the Rio Grande Valley do so at their own peril, saying they "absolutely" should pay closer attention to the region.
"It's important for every presidential candidate to address seriously the problem of securing the border and to have a serious plan and to demonstrate a willingness to enforce the law," Cruz told reporters.
Cruz's trip took shape around a private evening fundraiser at the International Museum of Art and Science, where an estimated 100 people paid at least $1,000 each to hear him speak. Cruz's host was Dr. Lawrence Gelman, a prominent Edinburg anesthesiologist and former CEO at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.
Several attendees said Cruz appeared to tailor his remarks to a crowd filled with medical professionals, many connected to the doctor-owned hospital. The Affordable Care Act has been criticized for stunting the growth of such hospitals, and Cruz repeated Tuesday his vow to repeal "every word" of the law if elected president, according to those who heard him.
"That is his battle cry, and it continues," said Sergio Sanchez, chairman of the Hidalgo County GOP. For the doctors in the room fed up with Obamacare, Sanchez added, "that was chum in the water."
Yet despite the setting, Cruz hardly — if at all — mentioned border security or immigration policy, according to several attendees, some of whom were surprised given his outspokenness on the issues. Earlier in the day, addressing reporters across the street from a U.S. Border Patrol facility, Cruz was anything but muted on the topic.
"This issue deserves presidential leadership," he declared, faulting Obama and his Democratic Senate colleagues for failing to seek "common ground" in the immigration debate.
Cruz's visit came the same day Gov. Greg Abbott held a bill-signing ceremony in Houston for far-reaching legislation that would keep the National Guard on the border until the Texas Department of Public Safety can install 250 new troopers there. Cruz broadly echoed that prescription in Edinburg, arguing that the National Guard should not have a permanent presence in the region.
"The National Guard is not the best long-term solution," Cruz told reporters. "That is not ultimately the core function of the National Guard."
Asked how he balances the need for border security with the concerns of local business leaders who see the troops as bad for their bottom line, Cruz defended the National Guard deployment, saying it has had a "material impact" on reducing illegal crossings.
Cruz is not the only Republican White House hopeful setting his sights on the Valley. Former Gov. Rick Perry, who announced his 2016 run last week, has scheduled a fundraiser next week in Mission, whose mayor is among the hosts. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, expected to jump into the race this summer, toured the border in March with Abbott, who has urged presidential contenders not to discount Texas, especially the Valley. And there is talk in GOP circles here that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, is planning a visit later this summer.
The flurry of presidential attention has elevated the Valley in a way unimagined as recently as a few years ago, said George Rice, a local Republican who swung by Cruz's fundraiser out of curiosity. So far, he said, it's a "three-way race" for the meager GOP vote here, split among Cruz, Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish and has a Hispanic wife.
Rice, an oilfield consultant active in Hidalgo County Young Republicans, said he sees Cruz's appeal, likening his charisma to that of Obama. Yet Rice, a self-described moderate, added he also sees a double-edged sword for Cruz: an unapologetically conservative approach that fires up the base but gives less likely supporters some pause.
"I respect that," Rice said of Cruz's style. "It doesn't mean I'm going to vote for it — yet."