"Dan Crenshaw started the week as a punchline and ended it as a star. The real story came before that." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
HOUSTON — Dan Crenshaw’s good eye is good enough, but it’s not great. The iris is broken. The retina is scarred. He needs a special oversized contact lens, and bifocals sometimes, to correct his vision. Six years after getting blown up, he can still see a bit of debris floating in his cornea. His bad eye? Well, his bad eye is gone. Under his eye patch is a false eye that is deep blue. At the center of it, where a pupil should be, is the gold trident symbol of the Navy SEALs. It makes Dan Crenshaw look like a Guardian of the Galaxy.
But he can’t catch a baseball very well anymore. He misses plenty of handshakes; his arm shortchanges the reach, his palm fumbles the grip. He has trouble with dumb little tasks — he needs to touch a pitcher to a cup to properly pour a glass of water, for example. But nothing major. Nothing that would prevent him from coming out of nowhere, unknown and underfunded, to vanquish seven opponents in a Republican primary, then squash a state legislator in a runoff, and then on Tuesday, at age 34, win his first-ever general election to represent his native Houston area in Congress.
He’ll join a freshman class with two dozen other newly elected House members who are under 40 and, at least, 15 who are veterans. Yet, Crenshaw seems poised to stand out. His potent life story, his striking presence and his military and Ivy League credentials have set him up as a rising star for a Republican Party in bad need of one, after losing what could turn out to be three dozen seats once the dust settles.
Thirty-six hours after his election-night triumph, Crenshaw still hadn’t caught up on sleep. There was some stale cake sitting in his campaign office, and he was juggling phone calls and a haircut he was going to be late for. He just left a luncheon with business leaders and was due early the next morning for a veterans ceremony. In two days, he would make a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” before heading to Capitol Hill for a two-week orientation.
A whirlwind to everyone else, it seemed, but not him.
“It’s life,” Crenshaw said, sitting at a conference table in his Houston office last week. “It’s not a challenge.” He was the picture of calm. The eye patch was off. The gold trident sparkled. Behind him was a large framed photo of Ronald Reagan. Ahead of him was the next mission.
Weirdly, his election wasn't the biggest news in Crenshaw's life last week. That came during the first minutes of Nov. 4 on the "Weekend Update" portion of "Saturday Night Live," when cast member Pete Davidson, who gave a riff on the midterms, presented a photo of Crenshaw, eye patch on.
“You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hit-man in a porno movie,” the comedian joked. “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war or whatever.”
The studio audience laughed, but everyone else took to their soapboxes. How dare liberal jokesters malign an American hero! How dare conservatives put constraints on comedy! A wave of national media came his way and Crenshaw, appearing on CNN and Fox News, was cool as a cucumber. He wasn’t offended. He was just disappointed that the joke was lame and unfunny.
Then, Crenshaw said, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels called to apologize and to invite him on this weekend’s show. Crenshaw hesitated. He’s not an entertainer. He had Veterans Day events over the weekend, but he saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share a clear message with a national audience.
After roasting Davidson in classic SNL fashion (“This is Pete Davidson. He looks like if the meth from ‘Breaking Bad’ was a person”), Crenshaw took a moment.
“But, seriously, there’s a lot of lessons to learn here,” Crenshaw said, addressing the camera as he sat next to Davidson. “Not just that the left and right can still agree on some things but also this: Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country.” He encouraged Americans to connect with veterans by telling them, “Never forget,” instead of, “Thanks for your service.”
“When you say ‘never forget’ to a veteran, you are implying that, as an American, you are in it with them . . . and never forget those we lost on 9/11 — heroes like Pete’s father,” a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center. “So I’ll just say, Pete, never forget.”
“Never forget,” Davidson replied.
Crenshaw's father's career in the oil and gas industry took the family to Ecuador and Colombia, where Crenshaw went to high school and learned Spanish. Captivated as a child by the SEAL memoir "Rogue Warrior," he was commissioned as a naval officer in 2006 and underwent SEAL training, fracturing his tibia during its infamous "hell week" but completing the challenge on his second go-round. He deployed twice to Iraq and then, in 2012, to Afghanistan.
On June 15, 2012, when Crenshaw was 28, he and his platoon helicoptered into Helmand province on a last-minute mission to support a Marine Special Operations unit. At the time, Helmand was littered with improvised explosive devices. Bombs were so present in some areas that it was safer to crouch in place during oncoming fire — and wager on a sniper’s uncertain aim — than to dive for cover onto uncertain ground.
While Crenshaw’s platoon moved to secure a compound, an Afghan interpreter named Raqman, who wanted to become a Navy SEAL himself, responded to a call and crossed in front of Crenshaw. Raqman stepped on a pressure plate, triggering 15 pounds of explosives and suffering fatal injuries. Crenshaw, who was a couple of paces back, said he felt like he was hit by a truck while a firing squad shot at him. He was on the ground and his eyes were numb. The rest of his body screamed like it had been scratched open and doused in Tabasco. He reached down and felt his legs. Good sign. He had no vision, but assumed his eyes were just filled with dirt.
A medic friend began assessing the damage.
“Dude, don’t ever get blown up,” Crenshaw said to him. “It really sucks.”
He refused to be carried on a stretcher, because he didn’t want to expose comrades to enemy fire for no good reason. He walked to a medical evacuation, where he was put into a coma. He woke up in Germany a few days later, blind and swollen. The remains of his right eye had been surgically removed; eventually a copper wire would be pulled out of his left. Doctors said there was a chance he might see again, but, for Crenshaw, it was a certainty. Seeing again became his mission, and that sense of mission helped him endure the hallucinations, the surgeries, the weeks he had to spend — face down and sightless — while his eye healed, and the two years it took for a medical bureaucracy to get him to a place of relative comfort. He remembered how his mother, who died of cancer when he was 10, never complained during her five-year struggle with the illness. He held fast to his sense that life is about mission: You need one to live and to live productively.
Just over a year after his injury, he married his longtime girlfriend, Tara.
He deployed twice more, to Bahrain and South Korea, as troop commander of an intelligence team.
In various commendations, the Navy cited him for his “zealous initiative,” “wise judgment” and “unswerving determination.” Medically retired in 2016, Crenshaw then earned a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.
In 2017, he returned to Houston — for the first significant chunk of time since he was a child — to help with recovery after Hurricane Harvey.
While Crenshaw was looking for a policy job on Capitol Hill, an adviser to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) took one look at him and, before they even sat down to talk, told him to run for office. The day before, Rep. Ted Poe (R) had announced his retirement from Texas’s second district, which starts in Houston and curves around the city like a tadpole. It was kismet.
“He said he wanted to run for office one day, but wanted to get policy experience first,” said a Capitol Hill aide who ended up advising the campaign (and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly). “I was like, ‘Have you paid attention to some of the people we have up here? You don’t need that.’ . . . And he went all in. It’s the SEAL ethos. It was amazing to watch.”
The campaign started in November 2017, four months before the Republican primary.
“I had never heard of him before he arrived. I would venture to say most people had never heard of him,” said Vlad Davidiuk, communications director for the Harris County Republican Party. “The district has changed demographically, and is no longer as solid red as it used to be. It required a candidate who was willing to campaign hard . . . What distinguished Dan Crenshaw most is his ability to engage with voters.”
Over five days in February, Crenshaw laced up his sneakers and ran 100 miles through the district, campaigning along the way. Thanks to a surge in day-of voting for the crowded primary, he sneaked into second place by 155 votes, besting an opponent who had spent millions of her personal fortune. By then, his personal story was resonating. His face was recognizable and symbolic.
Most Texas Republicans aren’t very exciting, said Mark P. Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University in Crenshaw’s district. “None of them are very compelling or appealing. They’re just sort of random old white dudes, and Dan Crenshaw was something new and different.”
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He had schooled himself on border security, health care and flood-control issues — a big concern for a region still smarting from Harvey. He met with engineers to discuss infrastructure and with young Republicans to energize new voters. More than one yard in the district was adorned with both a Crenshaw sign and a “BETO” sign, in allegiance to Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (whom Crenshaw outperformed by 12 percentage points in Harris County).
“He’s just tenacious,” Poe said of the man who will be his successor. “I don’t think folks are going to know what to do when he gets [to Washington], and I mean that in a good way.”
In a 2015 Facebook post flagged by one of his opponents, Crenshaw called candidate Donald Trump an idiot and referred to his rhetoric on Muslims as “insane,” according to the Texas Tribune. Three years later, Crenshaw says he supports the president’s policies, save for the trade warfare, but prefers to comport himself in a manner that is the total opposite of the commander in chief’s.
“His style is not my style,” Crenshaw says. “I’ll just say that. It’s never how I would conduct myself. But what readers of The Washington Post need to understand is that conservatives can hold multiple ideas in their head at the same time. We can be like, ‘Wow he shouldn’t have tweeted that’ and still support him . . . You can disapprove of what the president says every day, or that day, and still support his broader agenda.”
On Tuesday, he was the only true bright spot for the GOP in Harris County, where O’Rourke’s candidacy brought Democrats to the polls and flushed out Republicans down the ballot. Crenshaw won 53 percent of the vote, but reached out to the other 47 percent during his victory speech in downtown Houston.
“This life, this purpose, this American spirit that we hold dear — we are not alone,” he said, sharing the mission: “We do it together.”
Staff reporter Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.