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Analysis: Texas Candidates’ Departures Can Hinder Their Returns

The end of one political race is often the beginning of the next one. As former Gov. Rick Perry learned, an "oops" moment in one contest can color voter opinion in the next one. That ought to worry U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is interviewed by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 24, 2016.

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“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Ted Cruz and Rick Perry should’ve taken that old argument-ending towel-snap as political advice. Good endings are strong beginnings. Bad endings are merely endings.

Both men ended their initial runs for the nation’s highest office with stumbles that overshadowed the preceding campaigns.

The last impressions were the strongest ones. Their presidential races were marked more by how they ended than by how they started or by what the candidates stood for while they were running.

For Perry, it was that “oops” moment in 2011, a debate blunder that confirmed criticism that the then-Texas governor was not ready for the big time. Asked to name the three federal agencies he wanted to abolish, Perry suffered the sort of brain freeze that might happen to anyone. But he did it on national TV, surrounded by competitors ready to pounce.

Cruz punctuated his laudatory run for office this year with a Republican convention speech that made him look like a sore loser and then an endorsement of Donald Trump that made him look like an unprincipled sore loser.

Perry’s path is a pretty good description of the trouble that might lie ahead for the state’s junior senator.

Perry was back again for another run in 2015, but he never could find traction in a crowded field of past and present Republican governors and U.S. senators. The “Texas Miracle” that served as the springboard for his first run had given way to another strong impression — the one formed in his campaign-ending “oops.”

Cruz is up for re-election in 2018. His stock rose quickly with Texas Republicans as he beat then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and others on his way to the U.S. Senate and then elbowed his way onto center stage as a boisterous renegade there.

He outran nearly every other candidate in the crowded presidential field, a remarkable run that put him at or near the top of the list of prospects for the next presidential election cycle.

Time to go home and lick your wounds, figure out how to win re-election in 2018 and whether to run for president again in 2020 or later.

That’s not what he did. Cruz’s high-profile non-endorsement of Trump said, in effect, that the party’s voters had made the wrong choice and that he — as a matter of principle, honor and conscience — was not going to go along.

That changed the emphasis of the race and amounted to a wager that voters would end up wishing they had gone with Cruz instead of Trump. Within two months' time, Republicans were done with all that. They were uniting, as they generally do, behind their nominee and against the Democrats' nominee.

Cruz flipped, deciding to support Trump. His earlier refusal to endorse is the only reason his ultimate endorsement was news.

It wasn’t his support that earned a headline. It was his flip. That’s the burden he’ll bear in his next race and, probably, in the one after that.

Cruz will eventually have to convince voters in Texas (and elsewhere, if he runs again for president) that he’s still the renegade they elected in 2012 — a conservative willing, on their behalf, to battle the entrenched political class in Washington, D.C. He’ll also have to answer whether he wants to be a senator for six years or is running for a position on the next presidential launch pad.

Whether you liked or hated his non-endorsement routine in Cleveland, it fit comfortably within his middle-finger reputation. Message: He’s not like those other politicians.

Last week’s acrobatics is the sort of thing voters expect from politicians. The heat was on. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was imploring Cruz to come aboard. U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, was sniffing around at a Senate primary challenge to Cruz. Trump’s campaign was making vaguely conciliatory noises.

If some rank-and-file Republicans and donors were put off by the non-endorsement in July, the Cruz crew of noisy conservative populists were put off by his decision to fall in line with the establishment.

It’s a question of the next first impression Cruz will have to make, first to Texans and then, possibly, to voters in other states. Will their strongest opinions come from his rise, or from the way he left the stage this year?

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The Texas Legislature has become the court of last resort for companies and industries fighting local regulations in the state's cities and counties. And for those interests, Austin can be a very favorable venue for appeals.
  • Voters in the state's largest school district can say no to sending money to other school districts, putting Texas lawmakers in a bind and — maybe — raising their own school taxes in the process.
  • The late Donald Trump endorsement by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — considered before that actually took place — will require some difficult political acrobatics, both now and after the November election.

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Politics 2016 elections Michael McCaul Rick Perry Ted Cruz