Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been the enemy of the Washington Establishment since he announced his campaign for the Senate in 2011, and for years the feeling has been mutual. He led the government shutdown fight, called his party’s majority leader a “liar” and staked out policy positions many mainstream members of his party found extreme.
Now as the leading alternative to bombastic GOP front runner Donald Trump, Cruz is finding that the ice is thawing. Establishment heavies such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former GOP nominee Mitt Romney and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have set aside a host of differences to line up behind Cruz’s candidacy.
In an exclusive interview with TIME, Cruz reflects on the last conversation he’s had with Mitch McConnell, the economic themes he will highlight in the coming Northeastern primaries and how he’s trying to broaden his appeal from conservatives to the Republican Party and beyond.
TIME sat down briefly with Cruz in Milwaukee just before polls closed in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript.
READ THE FULL TIME COVER STORY: Can America Learn to Love Ted Cruz?
One of the things we’ve noticed going back to your speeches of the past few months is that you used to have this line where conservatives are coming together, and now it seems to be a lot of Republicans coming together. It seems you’d be the unlikely person for that to happen around. How do you see that happening?
Well, that was always our approach from the beginning. If you look to the speech where we announced the campaign at Liberty University, it focused on bringing Americans together behind shared values.
Behind a shared desire for jobs and economic opportunity and rising wages. Behind a passion for the Constitution and Bill of Rights and protecting the fundamental liberties of every American.
And behind the desire to keep America safe and secure, to stand with our friends and allies and to stand up against our enemies. And those are values that naturally unite us.
They cut across ideological lines, they cut across racial and ethnic lines, gender lines, socioeconomic lines and even party lines. From the beginning our objective was to reunite the old Reagan coalition to bring together Republicans and Independents and Libertarians, and Reagan Democrats. And I think we’re seeing that happening more and more.
You called many of the people in Washington the cartel, locusts. You’re not building bridges to them, you’re going after their voters — would that be the better way of describing it?
Sure. I’ve said many times, the biggest divide we have politically is not between Republicans and Democrats. It is between career politicians in Washington in both parties, and the American people.
And the most common thing you hear as you travel the country, and you hear this from Republicans, from Democrats, from Independents, from Libertarians, is they say we keep electing politicians and they’re not listening to us.
They say one thing and they don’t do what they say. They lie to us and they don’t listen to us. They’re not fighting for us. And that frustration, the frustration with Washington favoring the rich and the powerful, the well-connected, the lobbyist and special interest, is at the heart of this election.
And I believe the path to winning the Republican nomination and winning the general election is standing up for the hardworking men and women of America who’ve been left behind by Washington.
You’ve been getting some of the people in Washington behind you on this campaign, Lindsey Graham, Jeb Bush. Did this come as a surprise to you? What went through your head when Lindsey Graham called you and said he wanted to endorse you?
We welcome the support from everyone. And to win, we’ve got to build a broad coalition that unifies the party and that grows and expands the party.
One of the keys to doing so is that throughout the course of this campaign as others have gotten nasty and gotten personal, have engaged in a war of insults and petty personal attacks, I haven’t responded in kind. I’ve kept my focus on the issues, on substance.
And the real problems facing the American people. That is very much the model of Ronald Reagan. Even when Reagan primaried Gerald Ford in ’76. Now primarying the incumbent Republican President enraged Republican leadership in Washington.
But Reagan likewise kept his focus on substance and policy and issues. He didn’t engage in personal attacks. That made it far easier to unite Republicans at the end of the process.
And in this race likewise, I think a focus on our shared values, on real solutions to the challenges facing this country makes it easier to bring people together at the end of a hard-fought primary.
Do you envision ever getting Donald Trump to support you personally? Or is it just an appeal to his voters?
I would certainly welcome Donald’s support and everybody else’s. The process of campaigning is trying to bring together a team behind a shared vision, a positive optimistic conservative vision for America.
Many times I’ve drawn the analogy to 1980. Because I believe we’re at a very similar moment in time. I think the parallels between Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are uncanny. And I believe we will win in 2016.
By painting in bold colors, not pale pastels, just as Reagan observed. That positive optimistic hopeful vision naturally brings people together.
One data point that has been powerful from the very beginning is our campaign has had tremendous support among young people. Now starting back in the Iowa caucuses where we won young people in the Iowa caucus.
And in some head-to-head polls with Hillary Clinton as well.
Exactly. Fox News a couple of weeks ago had me leading Hillary Clinton by 14 points among young people. Given that Barack Obama won young people 70-30 two elections in a row, that is a tremendously encouraging outcome.
And a serious warning sign for the Democrats. If the Democrat is losing young people by double digits, then I believe Hillary Clinton cannot win the general election.
Back to your comments before about the economics, the state of America, the divide between Washington and the people, do you consider yourself an economic populist?
Absolutely. What I’ve tried to do every day in the Senate, and what I intend to do as President is fight for the working men and women of this country. And not for the special interests in Washington.
Often on the campaign trail I’ll observe that I agree with Bernie Sanders. Now that’s an unusual thing for a Republican candidate for President to say. But I say, I agree with Bernie Sanders that Washington is corrupt.
That both parties, career politicians in both parties get in bed with the lobbyist and special interest. And the fix is in. Where Washington’s policies benefit big business, benefit the rich and the powerful at the expense of the working men and women.
Now the point that I often make, and just a couple of days ago in Wisconsin I was visiting with a young woman who said she was a Bernie Sanders supporter. And I mentioned to her that I agreed with Bernie on the problem.
But I said if you think the problem is Washington is corrupt, why would you want Washington to have more power? I think the answer to that problem is for Washington to have less power, for government to have less power over our lives.
And for individual citizens to be free to choose, free to choose our own futures, free to choose our own hopes and dreams. And that is the heart of this campaign.
When I was just elected to the Senate, the very first op-ed I wrote was in the Washington Post. And it was on opportunity conservatism. Which is how I have long described my political philosophy.
That every policy we think about and talk about should focus like a laser on opportunity. On easing the means of ascent of the economic ladder. On how it impacts, the most vulnerable, young people, Hispanics, African Americans, single moms.
The reason that I am a conservative is that I believe the American free-enterprise system has been the greatest engine for freedom and prosperity the world’s ever seen. And I try to think of every policy from the perspective of my dad.
When he was a teenage immigrant in 1957, when he fled Cuba after being imprisoned and tortured. And he was washing dishes at 50¢ an hour. How would a particular policy have impacted my dad?
And so I’ve often observed, if my dad were still washing dishes today, the odds are quite high he would have lost his job or never been hired, because of the incredible burdens of taxes and regulations on small businesses.
It’s the teenage kids washing dishes who are paying the price. And if my dad had been lucky enough to keep his job, the odds are overwhelmingly high that he would have had his hours forcibly reduced to 28, 29 hours a week because Obamacare kicks in at 30 hours a week.
And you can’t feed your kids, you can’t pay your way through school on 28, 29 hours a week.
This is the sort of message we didn’t hear a ton from you in Iowa and some of the earlier states. Do you see the nature of the map changing where you focus on the issues — as the race is moving into less socially conservatives states, more socially liberal or industrial states — that you have to change how you present yourself to a different audience?
My focus has always been on the shared values of who we are as Americans. When I ran for Senate, these were the issues I was talking about. In the Senate, these have been the issues where I have focused my time and energy.
Whether leading the fight against Obamacare because it’s the biggest job-killer in the country and it’s hurting millions of Americans. Or leading the fight against the national debt that’s bankrupting our kids and grandkids.
Because it’s sapping the economic future from this future. Or leading the fight against the efforts of Washington politicians to tax the Internet.
If you look at the efforts to put an Internet sales tax in place, you see both Democrats and Republicans responding to what I’ve described as a perfect storm of lobbyists pushing for taxes on the Internet.
I think the Internet should remain free of taxes, free of regulations, outside of the grubby mitts of Washington. Because the Internet has been this incredible haven for entrepreneurial activity, for free speech.
And the worst thing we could do to the Internet is allow Washington to control what’s said, what’s done on the Internet. To allow Washington to control the innovation.
And one of the great things about the Internet is it makes it far easier for people to start small businesses. It used to be if you wanted to start a small business you had to have capital, you had to have some good or service you were selling and an inventory, a warehouse. You needed distribution.
With the Internet, anybody can start a small business. Put up a website. And with FedEx ship their product anywhere in America. And that has reduced the barriers for those who are struggling, for people like my dad.
Teenage kids washing dishes can start a business online. Uber, you have all the time people who are struggling start their own business as an Uber driver. That’s an example where if we get Washington out of the way it helps people climb the ladder of economic opportunity and achieve the American dream.
The last two and a half years in Washington you’ve been getting the question, maybe more times than you can count, “Why does everyone hate you?” Now I guess the question is, “Why does everyone like you?”
I think people are fed up with the direction the country’s going. The Obama-Clinton economy has been a disaster. We have the lowest percentage of Americans working in the year since 1977.
Wages have stagnated for over a decade. People are hungry for a change. On foreign policy the Obama-Clinton foreign policy is as if anything even worse than their economic policy. Every region of the world has gotten worse. Our friends and allies no longer trust us.
And our enemies no longer fear or respect us. That hunger to change the course we’re on is helping bring people together. It’s helping unify. And from our end, we’re working to welcome everyone to come together as a coalition behind shared values.
This race is very simple. We unite, we win. If we do not, we lose. In the last two weeks, the national political terrain has changed dramatically. Two weeks ago, the state of Utah, we won a landslide victory, 69% of the popular vote. Won every single one of the delegates.
Just a few days ago in Colorado. Two different congressional districts voted. They elected six delegates. We won all six. Two days ago in North Dakota, we won another tremendous victory of the delegates who had declared their support, 18 are with us.
Only one is with Donald Trump. I’ll take an 18-to-1 ratio any day of the week. And then tonight in Wisconsin, we don’t know the results yet, but all of the early signs are very encouraging. (Editor’s note: Cruz beat Trump by 13 percentage points Tuesday.)
Three weeks ago, almost every media pundit said I didn’t have a chance in Wisconsin. That it was a natural state for a big Trump win. It’s an upper Midwest state, it’s an industrial state.
And yet what we’ve seen here in Wisconsin is we’ve seen tremendous support among the working men and women, the people who have been hammered by the Obama-Clinton economy.
We’ve seen tremendous support among young people. We’ve seen a double-digit lead among women. We’ve seen tremendous support among independents. This is an open primary, independents can vote.
And we are seeing that Reagan coalition coming together behind shared values and a shared vision. And what has happened in Utah and Colorado and North Dakota and Wisconsin reflects what has to happen nationally.
Not only for us to win the nomination, but for us to beat Hillary Clinton and win the general.
How do you get those Trump voters there? They seem to be very committed to him, they’ve promised riots in Cleveland. Certainly his staff has. Does that concern you? They seem to forgive him so many sins that he would have doomed another candidate a long time ago.
There’s no doubt Donald Trump has energized and excited a great many people. And I’m grateful to him for doing so. The issues that brought those voters into the political world, the need to secure our border, stop illegal immigration, stop the failed immigration policies that have driven down wages and taken away jobs from struggling Americans.
The need for a common-sense trade policy that doesn’t continue to ship jobs overseas and force Americans to compete on an unfair playing field.
Those issues will continue to resonate. And they are issues on which I am fighting and leading every day. If you look at the states that have voted, Donald Trump is turning out a significant number of new voters, first-time voters.
And we are turning out a significant number of new voters, first-time voters. In some states Donald has won first-time voters. In other states we’ve won first-time voters.
If and when we beat Donald, and I believe we are going to beat Donald, that we are going to earn 1,237 delegates, a majority of the delegates, either before the convention, by winning in state after state, after state, or at the convention in Cleveland.
Where if we go into a contested convention where nobody has 1,237 delegates, I believe we will be in a very strong position to earn a majority of the vote from the delegates elected by the people.
And the only way you can become the Republican nominee is to earn a majority. We are seeing Republicans unite behind this campaign. And that I believe will continue to happen and lead to a victory both in the nomination and in the general election.
When was the last time you spoke to Senator McConnell?
I don’t recall the last time Mitch and I have spoken. I’ve been on the campaign trail the last couple of months. So it was likely the last time I was in the Senate for a vote.
But when you are on the campaign trail, listening to the voters, hearing their concerns, answering their questions, that naturally is your focus. And it’s not Washington. And that I think sums up this election. That my focus is on the hard-working taxpayers, the men and women that Washington hasn’t been listening to. And those are the people for whom I’m fighting. And those are the people who are so hungry to turn this country around.