Though firebrand Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was just elected to the Senate in 2012, speculation has erupted in the last week that he may be a top presidential contender in the coming cycle. He joins potential contenders Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), both just elected in 2010. Their emergence has inspired observers to wonder whether the prospect of presidential contenders coming out of the Senate has become a new norm. Though they do follow President Obama — elected out of the Senate after serving there a mere four years — it seems to be for very different reasons.
Traditionally, senators have not had an easy time building the sort of national coalitions needed to win the presidency. Of 44 presidents, only 16 served in the Senate; just three (Warren Harding, John Kennedy, and Barack Obama) were elected directly from the Senate to the White House.
Looking at recent history, it seems like senators are becoming increasingly presentable candidates for the White House. Yet Rubio, Rand and Cruz stand in contrast to the president in many ways.
Obama cruised to easy victories abetted by Democratic leaders. In seeking the party’s nomination for Senate in March 2004, he received 53% of the vote to 24% for his closest competitor. The same year, he delivered the speech at the Democratic National Convention that sparked his rise to enduring national prominence.
Where Obama spent his time almost passively schmoozing with Democratic stars, Rand Paul brawled with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 22 other Republican senators to win his party's nomination with a commanding 59% of the vote.
Months earlier, McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), had scurried to snuff out Rubio's candidacy in favor of now-Democrat Charlie Crist. The day Crist announced, Cornyn quickly assured voters that while Rubio had 'a very bright future within the Republican Party," Crist was "the best candidate … to ensure that we maintain the checks and balances that Floridians deserve in the United States Senate."
Less than a year later, Crist dropped out of the Republican primary, and Rubio crushed it with 85% of the vote.
By 2012, Cornyn, McConnell, and other professional politicians — "spineless jellyfish," as Cruz taunted them — were realizing that they couldn't relate to the shifting political dynamics being powered by leaders like Rand and Rubio. They opted to start being more quiet.
Of course, Cruz was still hit by more than one faction of Republican leadership. Mike Huckabee endorsed Cruz's opponent, and Rick Perry — who has endorsed more than one losing candidate — did the same. Nonetheless, Cruz went on to win the final primary vote by 57-43%.
All three Republicans (Cruz, Rand and Rubio) made a name for themselves through a very real personification of conservatism: a manifestation of the idea that excessive authority or conformity was anathema to a free society. The three have bucked history by blazing their own trail straight through an incredibly lost and weakened party.
In contrast, Obama is the personification of collectivist ideals. His victories were blessings from a process of consensus, occasionally buoyed with endorsements from traditional Democratic leaders like Sen. Ted Kennedy. He was ushered out of the Senate as easily as he was escorted in, the result of a communal production rather than through his natural abilities as a historic, enigmatic leader.
Where Obama represented only the occasional exception, Senator Cruz, Rubio and Paul seem to constitute a convergence of historic forces that were, in part, catalyzed and driven by the uniqueness of their own personal visions for their party and country.
Senators seeking the presidency do appear to be more common based on recent observations. But the forces propelling them there look to be quite different.