Todd Spoth

Heidi Cruz Didn’t Plan for This

She had her whole future mapped out when she met Ted Cruz, starting with her dream job in Washington. This is the story of what came after.

A whole new world—that is what Ted Cruz wanted to give her.

It was the spring of 2001, and Heidi Nelson was planning her nuptials to the man she’d met just over a year earlier. On Christmas break from Harvard Business School, she’d encountered the cocky and cerebral Cruz in Austin, Texas, where they were both working on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. He was “super-smart” and “really fun” and looked like a “1950s movie star.” “It was love at first sight,” she told me.

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They filled those three weeks with movies and dinners and drives. Then he took her to the airport, where she’d get on a plane back to Boston. Call me every day when your day is done, she instructed him. And he did call her, every day that spring, at about 3 or 4 a.m. Later that summer, Ted gave her a strand of pearls. Probably fake, she still thinks, but they were from Bergdorf Goodman. And this was special: She’d mentioned once that she liked to go to Bergdorf’s, to look at the china and other delicate things behind glass, and he’d listened.

Which is how Heidi found herself planning a May wedding to a man who, for all his pretension, insisted they play “A Whole New World,” the popular Disney song, at the end of the ceremony. She didn’t understand: They had a band, she told him—a violinist, no less! Why on earth would they play a CD? “Because no one can do Aladdin,” he said. She relented, and it became a theme of sorts. Or that’s how she remembers it, anyway. On a magic carpet ride.

That was 17 years ago. Since then, as Ted’s wife, the mother of their two daughters, and the family breadwinner, Heidi has helped see him through roles as Texas solicitor general, U.S. senator, and, most recently, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. In 2015, she took unpaid leave from her job as the managing director of Goldman Sachs in Houston to campaign for her husband. Suddenly, the curtain was pulled back on the woman who professed to love one of the most polarizing figures in American politics. While Ted struggled to find character witnesses within his own party—his colleague Lindsey Graham once joked about someone murdering him on the Senate floor—Heidi collected fans wherever she went. “Everyone loves Heidi,” a prominent Houston Democrat told me. “Every time I talk to her I think, You should be running for office, not your husband.”

Heidi Cruz is indeed easy to like. I met her on an August afternoon at her home, where she’d invited me for lunch. The Cruzes live in precisely the house you’d envision—white brick with black shutters and a door framed by gas lanterns—in the neighborhood you’d expect, leafy and palatial, in the center of Houston.

If some people look like their dogs, Heidi Cruz looks like her house: expensive, serene, draped in pretty fabrics. That Wednesday afternoon, she greeted me somewhat breathlessly—“This client call went much longer than I thought it would!”—wearing a light-blue silk dress, a slightly darker blue scarf, and a knotted strand of pearls (not the ones from Ted). As we sat down to eat, she said what I imagine all women who wear these things must say, her voice warm and conspiratorial: “We’re gonna have some champagne. Yes, we are.” She leaned to grab a bottle off the dining-room table, and the crystal chandelier reflected her hair and turned gold.

Shining, shimmering, splendid.

We were almost two hours into our conversation before she brought up her wedding. It was a beautiful day, to be sure. The girls—Caroline, 10; Catherine, 7—love to watch the video. The point, though, is the song, because she still thinks about it, often. Ambitious young women imagine choosing their own worlds. But to become a political spouse, even in 2018, is to learn that your world will be chosen for you. For Heidi, that’s meant enduring an excruciating spotlight, weathering tabloid rumors and the current president’s jibes about her looks. Now her husband is in the midst of yet another intense campaign, this time against Beto O’Rourke, the liberal darling vying for his Senate seat. As the race continues to dominate cable news, I wanted to know what the circus feels like for Heidi. I wanted to know, too, how she maintains a sense of herself in an arena that defines her in relation to someone else.

And I wanted to know what Heidi wishes she had known.

“I would say to younger women: Be intentional about your decisions,” she said. “And I do appreciate that Ted started our life together with that song, because there’s some truth to it.

“He’ll be like, ‘It’s such a great life! We have so much adventure ahead! It’s like our magic-carpet ride,’” she continued. “And sometimes I’m like, ‘I hope we don’t hit the cement.’”

On March 22, 2015, Heidi was on a Southwest flight en route to Liberty University, where her husband would announce his bid for the White House the following day. She was journaling her calorie count when she accidentally flipped to entries from more than a decade before, in the midst of her depression.

It had all started with the move to Houston. She and Ted were both working for the Bush administration in Washington; she was the director of the Latin America office in the Treasury Department and he was working at the Federal Trade Commission. She was happy. He was not. So in 2002, with her support, Ted interviewed in Texas for the position of solicitor general. When the offer came, the couple decided that Ted would move to Austin while Heidi stayed behind; she was now working for Condoleezza Rice on the National Security Council, and was in no rush to give up the post. Their relationship had been built on long-distance phone calls. Their marriage could surely survive on them, too.

Heidi had known from the get-go that Ted wanted to hold state office. She was aware that someday she would move to Texas. What shocked her was that “someday” arrived so quickly. She had encouraged him to apply for the job, yes. But truth be told, with his lack of experience, she didn’t think he’d get it.

They made it work for almost two years before they finally agreed that Heidi would move to Houston, where she could work in banking. They’d take weekly turns driving the three hours between cities to see each other.

Moving to Texas so early in her career was not part of her plan. And she had always been a planner. She was only 8 years old when, on a family road trip, she fell in love with Washington. Though her Seventh-Day Adventist parents were largely apolitical, she decided in high school that she wanted to intern on Capitol Hill one day. She attended Claremont McKenna College, a small liberal-arts school known for its government and economics focus, just four hours from her family in San Luis Obispo, California. She got her internship. From there, she plotted a path to the federal government through Wall Street, business school, and, finally, campaign work.

In other words, a plum Treasury Department or NSC job was expected. Heidi had planned for it, just like she’d planned for everything else. Texas, however—the swift transition to Merrill Lynch, the loneliness, the struggle to build her reputation from scratch—snuck up on her.

Not until now has Heidi publicly discussed what happened on the night of August 22, 2005. She was in Austin, visiting Ted, when it felt as though this whole new world was suffocating her. She got upset about a small thing. She can’t remember what, exactly—maybe that Ted was drinking a glass of wine and watching television, even though he still hadn’t taken out the trash.

“And then it wasn’t just that,” she explained. “It was, like, all of this—like, ‘Why am I here? And by the way, I gave up living where my family is to come here, so that I could sit on [the] 290 freeway every week to go work for a company that’s actually headquartered in New York, and I could be in headquarters if I wasn’t here with you.’”

“Like, I mean, all these things, right?” she said. “And so, I dipped.”

For Heidi, “dipping” meant walking to the side of an on-ramp near the house. Around 11 p.m., a passerby called the police to report that a woman in a pink shirt was sitting near the MoPac Expressway, her head buried in her hands. She didn’t seem to have a vehicle nearby.

I asked Heidi whether she was thinking about killing herself.  “We were early in our marriage … It’s a wonderful thing—like, in a great way, you amplify each other. You’re a couple now, you’re two together, stronger. But before that, you make all your own decisions,” she said. “And there’s an adjustment that takes place when you realize that life is now all about the two of you, and that’s fine, but there are trade-offs.

“I think it’s very natural to feel afraid, to feel like things are in your path, in your wake, that were not your decision,” she continued. “I think my spirit just fell to a low place.”

The officer who arrived on the scene believed that Heidi was a “danger to herself,” according to his report. He drove her to the police station. Her husband came to pick her up. “Ted’s never mad,” Heidi remembered. “He just hugged me and said, ‘I just wanna make sure that you’re happy here, and that this is a successful chapter. We’re not always going to be here.’” She said the moment helped her realize how much he loved her.

“It was a challenging time. Because she was struggling with having given up a professional post that was very meaningful to her,” the senator told me recently about that night. “But we came through that process, and actually came closer together.” He said they never considered leaving Texas.

Shortly thereafter, on a friend’s suggestion, Heidi signed up for a Catholic spiritual retreat. Much of that weekend was cathartic. Rarely had she articulated aloud her trouble coping with the move—the feeling that, in leaving Washington, she had divorced an essential piece of herself. The retreat would ultimately help guide her future as a political spouse.

Heidi remembers her counselor, an 80-year-old Haitian woman, well. Heidi told her about the small things that had gutted her since she’d arrived in Texas. There was the time the new neighbors went starry-eyed at the Harvard diplomas hanging in the foyer. “‘Oh, your husband went to Harvard! Isn’t that so great? You must be so proud of him!’” Heidi mimicked them saying. “And I was like, ‘That’s my diploma.’” And there were bigger things, too. At the retreat, she felt selfish for mourning a job change when others were grieving, for example, the loss of a child.

The counselor “sat me down, and she looked at me and she goes, ‘I can tell you have an amazing husband. And you both will have an impact on this country,’” Heidi recalled. “She said … ‘God is going to use you, not Ted—not just Ted. You’re part of this team for a reason. God’s gonna use you to do something beyond yourself. You just let God take you to Texas, you let him take you wherever. Because there’s something bigger than you now.’”

Cruz at her home in Houston. (Todd Spoth)

ten years later, those were the notes she found scrawled in the front of her journal as she headed to Liberty and to Ted. It’s not as though she believed her counselor was a “seer”—nothing kooky like that. But she couldn’t help but feel that a prophecy of sorts was being fulfilled. On those pages she read of a woman frozen by purposelessness. Here, though, on this airplane, was a woman helping launch a campaign for the presidency of the United States. “I just started crying,” she said.

Still, the decision to join the campaign hadn’t been easy. In Houston, Heidi was finally thriving. At Goldman, she’d found purchase in an office that valued her—not as Ted Cruz’s wife, but for her work as the co-head of the Southwest region for private wealth management, leading an office of 35 people. She had friends. She had favorite restaurants.

She knew that to be at peace during the campaign, she would have to be sure of her purpose. “I realized early on that if I didn’t do this for my own reasons, and I did it to help Ted … that I could very easily resent everybody,” she said. She needed, in other words, to find the “something bigger” than herself.

For the most part, Heidi sees eye to eye with her husband on policy. She lauded the former senator of South Carolina Jim DeMint, a Tea Party leader, for spurring a conservative movement rooted in principles over partisanship. “He was willing to go into the country and say not who can win, but who should win,” she told me. “And that just gives me chills.” She admired Ted for following in DeMint’s footsteps, especially at a time when, she lamented, fewer and fewer Americans seemed to understand the Constitution. Free speech, religious liberty, gun rights—there just weren’t a ton of families “talking about that at the dinner table anymore.” The campaign, she concluded, would allow her to personally urge a return to this vision of America. She believed that, as president, Ted could bring this vision to life.

Leaving her job for her husband would be different this time around—of this Heidi was certain. She’d thought through the ways the campaign trail would be painful: the scrutiny, the suitcases, her name swapped for his lovely wife. But because she’d signed on for her own reasons, it seemed endurable. “I think feeling empowered through different chapters of your life is so important … Sometimes, you can do that by being deliberate,” she told me. “Like, a spouse could have gone into the presidential [campaign] and said, ‘I didn’t choose this; my husband did, and now [we’ve] lost. We’re in a different place. I wish I hadn’t done this.’” Heidi was determined to avoid that fate.

Heidi may not have joined the campaign exclusively for Ted, but she was a boon to his image all the same. Ted took pride in alienating himself from his colleagues during the primary campaign, pitching his impassioned, intraparty spats as something like martyrdom. But Heidi was there to make friends. She dressed the couple’s politics in poise and tact. She wielded the strategic charm of a Valley-girl like. As one Republican fundraiser told The Washington Post in the fall of 2015, it was often Heidi—not her husband—who edged undecided donors their way: “They said, ‘If he’s married to her ...’”

It was satisfying for her. “I’d go into events, and people [would be] like, ‘Oh, you’re so gracious!’” she remembered. “I don’t know that I’m that gracious, but going through that campaign, I knew that I had done a great job and made a great impression.”

There were downs, of course. Days when being on just wasn’t all that fun, when even someone as intentional as Heidi would find herself asking: To what end? “You cannot prepare to run for president,” she told me. “You can’t prepare to be told on the flight, ‘Oh, sorry,’ last minute, ‘you’re gonna have a meeting with a bunch of pastors at the hot-dog stand in the Des Moines, Iowa, airport, and they’re gonna ask you about your husband’s spiritual life.’

“I mean, that’s the weirdest expletive I’ve ever heard!” she exclaimed. (She actually said the word expletive.)

The Cruzes’ oldest daughter, Caroline, who was 7 when the campaign started, was skeptical about her decision to leave Goldman to “help Dad.” “I tried to articulate, you know, ‘It’s actually for the country, it’s a much bigger project than ourselves.’ And she wanted to know, if we won, was the first lady paid?”

When Cruz told her no, Caroline paused before answering. “That’s a bad deal for you,” Heidi recalled her saying. “We shouldn’t do this.”

I’m not sure whether this conversation happened word for word with her daughter. It may more accurately reflect one Heidi had with herself. Throughout our time together, she was adamant that her philosophy of intentionality was fail-safe. If someone shouted a mean comment at her during a rally, well, that was fine, because this wasn’t about her, anyway. “It was as if this whole campaign game was happening to another person,” she said. Even two years later, she was reluctant to admit that anything had challenged that resolve.

But reality sneaks in all the same, our mantras no match for the mercilessness of human feeling. As Heidi had discovered at the beginning of her marriage, signing on to a way of life is one thing; living it is another matter entirely. Despite her best efforts, Real Heidi and Campaign Heidi at times became one.

Take March 23, 2016, for example.

There was Melania Trump, airbrushed, ethereal, her cheekbones contoured to Kardashianesque depths. And then there was Heidi Cruz, caught mid-sentence in a grainy screenshot, the aesthetic Hyde to Melania’s Jekyll.

It was nearly midnight when the then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted the photos side by side. At the time, Trump and Ted were wrestling for the lead in the Republican primary. The implication was clear: My wife is hotter than yours.

A necessary point about Heidi, as it relates to her appearance: Calling her disciplined is like calling a desert dry—accurate, yes, but of a scope you can’t quite fathom until you experience it firsthand, which in my case meant listening to Heidi Cruz speak aloud a routine that no sane person should be able to maintain. She works out every morning, usually around 5:15: 20 minutes of a “hard run” and then rubber-band work and other CrossFit things I didn’t understand. She doesn’t usually eat dinner or desserts, even though she loves ice cream. (“If you put a whole packet of Sweet’n Low in tea,” she advised, “it’ll sort of freak your body out, and you get beyond sugar cravings.”)

But really, she stressed: The photo didn’t bother her. She was able to regard the situation rationally—just like her husband. “These things don’t bother Ted. He’s not saying, ‘Oh, I feel so bad; they think my wife’s ugly. You’re so pretty, Heidi. You’re not ugly,’” she said. “He’s like, ‘Hah! That was the worst move he’s ever made.’” She laughed at the memory.

But it would be understandable if Heidi found her two selves in conflict that evening. There was Campaign Heidi, yes, the one who could force herself to feel nothing by remembering this was a decision she made, something she wanted. But there was also Real Heidi, the human being who told me she immediately knew where the photo was from—a screengrab from an interview with the Fox News anchor Dana Perino—and who had immediately scolded herself for doing the interview, because she knew that her hair had needed highlighting that day, that it wasn’t camera-ready, and hadn’t she told her assistant just that?

Americans often regard prominent politicians’ spouses—usually women—as their “better halves.” It’s ostensibly flattering, a way to poke fun at a powerful man for not being nearly as delightful as his wife. (Barack Obama, for example, once joked that he and Jay-Z had bonded in part because “we both have wives who are significantly more popular than we are.”) But it’s also patronizing, the formulation more typically rooted in a partner’s beauty or charm than in her accomplishments. However implicitly, voters look to the desirability of a spouse to prove or disprove the desirability of a candidate. Trump’s tweet was thus not only a playground jab; it was also a way to telegraph a more fundamental failure on Ted’s part. And if some voters bought that, perhaps they could also be convinced that he was willing to step out on her.

The National Enquirer’s “bombshell” cover story dropped two days after Trump’s tweet. Based entirely on rumor and innuendo, it alleged that Heidi’s husband had “five secret mistresses.” It featured blurred photos of the women, their eyes covered by black bars. “This National Enquirer story is garbage,” Ted shot back at a campaign event. “It is a tabloid smear, and it is a smear that has come from Donald Trump and his henchmen.” (Trump, who’s close friends with the tabloid’s publisher, denied having anything to do with the story.)

Heidi told me she “literally laughed” when she first learned of it. “I called up Ted and I was like, ‘Have you had five affairs? Ha-ha-ha,’” she said. But a few days later, Real Heidi saw the paper at the grocery store. “And I called my mom and I was like, ‘This actually is out there. Like, this is really a thing. It hasn’t bothered me, but now I’m seeing this—do you think people read this? Do you think people believe this?’

“So,” she allowed, “you do have a moment of doubt.”

In today’s vicious political landscape, to campaign as his lovely wife is to risk doubting those things you thought you knew—your ambitions, your choice in lipstick, your partner. At a certain point, intentionality be damned, Heidi Cruz wanted out. By the end of spring, voters did, too.

On May 3, 2016, as his wife and daughters looked on, Ted dropped out of the race.

Reflecting on that night, Heidi said: “I don’t know that I even shed a tear.”

As we finished lunch on that August afternoon, the girls were right on time. They burst through the front door and dropped their backpacks on the seagrass carpet that matched the seagrass place mats on the dining-room table. Were the government to film a promo advertising the trappings of the modern all-American woman, they would surely include this scene: Heidi Cruz, just off another client call, striding high-heeled toward her girls to hug them. It was the first day of school, and they had traveled the few blocks all by themselves, on their bicycles. It had felt very grown-up. She reminded them of their new hamsters, and why didn’t they go grab them, because wouldn’t it be nice to show them to our guest?

The house, the career, the girls, the dog named Snowflake nosing at her feet: Take this scene in isolation, and Heidi Cruz does look like a woman who’s figured out how to have it all. Take this scene in isolation, and Heidi Cruz looks like she might even believe it, too.

It took time to get here. After the 2016 campaign ended, Heidi didn’t anticipate feeling rusty at life. “I kind of thought that we’d put everything on hold,” she said, “and it would be the same when we came back.” She felt like people didn’t know how to relate to her, as if she radiated suspicion whenever she entered a room. She imitated questions people would ask about her in a whisper: Are they upset about the campaign? What’s Ted going to do next? Is she still working?

“And they’re actually unsettling,” she said. “When you’re in your mid-40s and people ask, ‘Are you still working?’ and ‘Are your kids going back to school?’ you’re like, ‘Uh, yeah. Are you okay with that?’”

Work helped her ease into a rhythm again. She was promoted to a new, national role upon returning to Goldman. It was nice, she said, to go back to her “competitive world.” And to have her husband go back to his.

Many observers wondered whether the insults from the trail would define the Texas senator’s relationship with the White House. Trump hadn’t only attacked Heidi for her looks and deemed her husband “Lyin’ Ted”; he’d also suggested, bizarrely, that Ted’s father had had a hand in John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

If anything, Ted has mellowed. “A lot of his supporters have said, ‘You’re different now. Not, you know, fighting everybody and throwing bombs,’” Heidi said. “And Ted said, ‘It’s a different time.’”

It’s a different time because a Republican is president. There was some anxiety during the general election, she admitted. “What I did talk to Ted about … was if we support him and he ends up not being a conservative—not appointing conservative justices, not doing tax reform— are we part of a damaging decision in history?” But it worked out, and she doesn’t regret voting for Trump. It was Ted, she said, who insisted Trump pull only from the Federalist Society’s list when nominating Supreme Court justices. In Heidi’s view, her husband “has kept his integrity intact.” And, by extension, she has kept hers.

The Cruzes managed to lead a quieter life for much of the past two years. That is, until the Texas Senate race took off in earnest, when Beto O’Rourke, the perennially “fresh-faced” congressman, began whipping the media into a schoolgirl-like frenzy. Many a liberal dream rides on this race: the rise of the progressive left, the belief that this is the year—no, for real this time!—that Texas turns blue. Millions of dollars have poured in from outside the state with the explicit aim of defeating Ted. Whispers abound that even if O’Rourke loses, he’s on track to be the face of the Democratic Party in 2020.

Yet it’s not until Heidi brings up the race, well near the end of our conversation, that I realize we’ve forgotten it entirely. “You know, Ted is up for a tough reelection. I don’t know the future. I think he’s gonna win,” she mused, breezing through the sentences as if she were talking about anything other than her husband's political survival. She’s rooting for the team, sure (“I really hope he wins his reelection”), but with her hectic work schedule, she doesn’t think much about it beyond that (“I help out on the weekends where I can”).

It may be Heidi’s way of avoiding one truth she’s learned as a political spouse: that this life only gets harder as it goes on. Another term in the Senate means six more years her husband won’t live at home. It means more family conversations about why Dad can’t make it to school on Wednesday for the meet and greet with Caroline’s new teachers. It means Heidi is working 70-hour weeks not only because she wants to, but also because she has to.

“I really feel mission-driven on what he’s accomplishing,” she clarified. But “it does take some supportiveness, you know. Six to seven years in it, with me being the primary breadwinner—it’s like, ‘Uh, yeah, this is when people say thank you. I’ll now take that appreciation.’” She laughed. “Yeah, we’re seven years into this, and we’re not buying a second home anytime soon.”

So it’s still hard. But it’s also been more than a decade since that night near the freeway. “When I first moved here, I didn’t know where I fit in. I didn’t have a base, and I felt lost,” she said. “And the answer was: Put your head down, work hard, earn your own credibility again … It often turns out much better than you think.”

I asked Ted whether he thinks his wife is happy now in Houston. “Um, I think … sure,” he said, after taking a couple of beats. “I think she has”—another pause—“a professional life that has been very rewarding, a personal life that is fun and relaxing.”

Heidi, for her part, said she’s getting better at being okay with the unknown. It’s okay that she doesn’t know for sure whether Ted will win his Senate race, or whether he will want to run for president again (really, she has “no idea”). Maybe she’ll want to run for office herself someday. She’s not not interested, she said, grinning like a woman who very much is. “Being at the Treasury Department was a dream for me, and I was just at the staff level. And to do that at higher levels … I love that route, no doubt,” she said. But she’d do just fine on the campaign trail, too. “I can do the retail-politics thing pretty well now.”

Heidi suggested that we finish our afternoon with a tour of the house, which she was in the midst of redecorating. She’d gone crazy, she said, knowing it wouldn’t be finished by the time I arrived. But she beamed in each room anyway.

For everything, there was a place. The seagrass carpets, for Heidi, were the Hamptons. “I think I’m a Houston lifer … It’s important to our constituents that Ted be in the state,” she said. “But I do love New York … I miss it. I miss New York.”

We moved to a framed painting waiting to be hung. It was New England, depicting a party along the coast of Massachusetts. It was New York, where her grandmother had found the piece in the 1970s. And it was Los Angeles, where she later bought it for herself.

Back to the foyer. The wallpaper was striped, faint blue and ivory. But it would soon be red, which meant it would soon be London—“very London.” The first thing she’d notice when coming home.

Throughout our tour, she spoke of the cities like the design inspirations they were.

She spoke of them, too, like dazzling places she never knew.