WASHINGTON — Years before the government shutdown he helped engineer, and way before he became the most unpopular man in the Senate, Ted Cruz stood among friends during a visit to Harvard Law School.
It was 2007 and Cruz was the solicitor general of Texas. He returned to his alma mater in a suit and cowboy boots to participate in a moot-court session sponsored by the law school’s Federalist Society, an intellectual touchstone and source of ideological support for conservative students and Harvard Law alumni such as Cruz.
The audience that day included fans who reveled in his brand of constitutional conservatism and threw him a barbecue in appreciation.
“Ted was the person every Harvard Federalist Society member aspired to be,” said Sarah Isgur Flores, a Republican strategist who, as Federalist Society president, had invited Cruz to campus.
The Federalist Society and its network of influential members have nourished Cruz’s legal ideology for years and directly contributed to his success as a politician. Connections made through the society opened doors at crucial career moments, and more recently society members have been a fount of political and financial sustenance during his rise to national prominence.
The society’s libertarian ideals of limited government and judicial restraint are baked into Cruz’s political philosophy, which the Republican presidential candidate wants to take all the way to the White House.
That Sunday, inside the staged courtroom with an arched wood-beamed ceiling in Austin Hall, Cruz honed in on the separation of governmental powers, a key Federalist Society principle, one that he would put forward three days later on behalf of the State of Texas in a Supreme Court case challenging federal and United Nations authority. Afterwards, Cruz lingered for hours, fielding questions and dispensing career advice over burgers and beer off Harvard Yard.
“He was this young charismatic brilliant appellate advocate who had had a series of high profile cases at the Supreme Court, and here he was doing an outdoor barbecue hanging out with students,” said Isgur Flores, who went on to work on Cruz’s nascent, subsequently abandoned campaign for Texas attorney general in 2010 and who now works for Carly Fiorina.
(Fiorina, former Hewlett Packard chief executive whose father was the conservative appeals court judge Joseph Sneed, was selected by Cruz Wednesday to be his running mate. She ended her own bid for the GOP nomination this year after failing to break out of single-digit finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.)
Cruz appeared to be a natural fit for the Federalist Society when he entered Harvard Law in 1992. The society was founded a decade earlier at the Harvard, Yale, and University of Chicago law schools as a means for moderate to conservative students to counter the campuses’ prevailing liberal leanings.
Cruz had spent his high school years memorizing the Constitution and traveling around Texas giving presentations about it at Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.
As a Princeton undergraduate, Cruz had written his senior thesis on the Ninth and 10th Amendments.
He was attracted to the society’s emphasis on limiting federal power, restoring authority to the states, and separating the executive and judicial branches of government, said Robert George, a Princeton professor and Federalist Society member who was Cruz’s thesis adviser.
Charles Fried, a Harvard law professor and faculty adviser to the Federalist Society who had served as President Reagan’s solicitor general, said the society “made students who didn’t have some standard set of [liberal] beliefs feel less beleaguered.”
“If you put down on your CV that you were a member or an officer of the Federalist Society, that’s a signal where your political heart beats,” Fried said.
At Harvard, Cruz joined the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, which is closely associated with the Federalist Society, and he rose through the ranks to be one of a handful of executive editors by his third year. By then, the society had grown into a powerful national network of law professors and attorneys. The late conservative icon and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was one of the society’s first faculty advisers at the University of Chicago.
“It was a credential, a stamp on your ideology when you’re applying to things,” said Mark Badros, who attended Princeton and Harvard Law with Cruz and served as an executive editor of the journal alongside him.
Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus Harvard law professor and a liberal who taught Cruz, called the society’s founding one of most important changes that occurred during his 50 years at Harvard, after admitting women and African Americans.
“It helped level the playing field between liberals and conservatives,” Dershowitz said
Dershowitz and other liberal legal scholars around the country were often invited to debate the conservatives at Federal Society events, which he said helped both sides sharpen their arguments.
Far from shaping Cruz’s ideology, the society instead was influenced by Cruz and his band of conservatives, Dershowitz said.
“He came into Harvard a fully formed conservative,” he said. “Ted was part and parcel of the Federalist Society and helped to even move it to the right.”
Affiliation, then connection
There was no political litmus test to join Charles Cooper’s fledging law firm, a boutique practice in Washington that focused on constitutional litigation. But Cruz’s Federalist Society credentials certainly helped him fit in, said Cooper, a former assistant attorney general under President Reagan and an active Federalist Society member.
When Cruz joined the practice fresh from his clerkship with Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 1997, the firm was just nine months old. Four of the five founding members belonged to the Federalist Society, Cooper said; the fifth was a liberal Democrat.
Cooper said he and Cruz “are very simpatico in our legal and philosophical beliefs and values.”
Cooper became one of Cruz’s early campaign contributors, hosting a fund-raiser at his downtown Washington condo when Cruz launched his presidential bid last spring.
“I’ve tried in any way that I can to help Ted with his campaign,” Cooper said. “The Reagan revolution gave birth to the Federalist Society. It’s especially meaningful to me that Ted Cruz, a member of the Federalist Society, could be elected to the presidency of the United States.”
The rapid rise of Cruz’s political career is tied, in many ways, to his membership in the Federalist Society, said David McIntosh, one of the group’s founding board members.
“It gave him an early base of support when he started running for Senate,” McIntosh said. “A lot of members knew Ted, had seen him at conferences, and became his donors, supporters, and volunteers. In the early days, when it looked like it was impossible, the Federalist Society provided that initial true believer base.”
Cruz in March secured the endorsement of the Club for Growth, a Washington-based conservative group advocating for free-market principles. McIntosh serves as its president.
It was the first time the organization had endorsed a presidential candidate.
Hedge fund operator Robert Mercer — a notoriously media-shy conservative kingmaker who has donated $16.7 million this campaign cycle to outside spending groups, more than any other individual — was also an early booster of Cruz’s presidential campaign.
Mercer has given more than $13 million to Cruz’s super PACs, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. In addition, he’s given $250,000 to the Club for Growth, which is paying for advertising on Cruz’s behalf.
And he’s a major benefactor of the Federalist Society. The Mercer Family Foundation has contributed more than $3.6 million to the Federalist Society since 2013, according to tax documents. The society says it does not take political positions.
A meeting of minds, tenets
For two decades, Cruz had attended nearly every national conference of the Federalist Society, held annually in November at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
At the 2010 convention, Cruz made a new friend: Utah’s newly elected senator, Mike Lee, whose father, Rex, had been solicitor general under Reagan. Mike Lee had seen Cruz argue before the Supreme Court.
They had many mutual friends but had never met. Lee wanted to get to know Cruz better.
The two met in Lee’s temporary basement office in the Dirksen Senate building across the street from the Capitol. As they walked around the Capitol grounds for nearly two hours, Cruz confided that he was thinking about running for the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison.
“During this long walk, we talked about every legal, constitutional, political issue we could think of,” Lee recalled in an interview. “At the end of it, I said, ‘You’re about as much of an ideological twin of mine that I’m ever going to find. If you decide to run, I’ll endorse you.’ ”
Cruz launched his campaign a couple months later. Lee was his first endorsement. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” Lee said.
When Lee asked Cruz what else he could do to help, Cruz asked him to reach out to other Senate conservatives for support.
“He said, ‘Ted, I will move heaven and earth to get them back to you,’ ” Cruz wrote in his 2015 memoir.