Texas Sen. Ted Cruz faced widespread condemnation on Thursday for taking a tropical vacation with his family in Mexico while his home state was paralyzed by a deadly winter storm that left many without power or safe drinking water.
As criticism of the trip mounted, Cruz returned to Texas and said it was "obviously a mistake."
Cruz is already one of the most villainized Republicans in Congress, having created adversaries across the political spectrum in a career defined by far-right policies and fights with the establishment. More recently, he emerged as a leader in former President Donald Trump's push to overturn the results of the November election. Billboards calling for his resignation stood along Texas highways earlier in the month.
By Thursday, Cruz was knocked by everyone from the chair of the Texas Republican Party to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive firebrand.
The question is whether the damage will have a lasting impact on Cruz's political prospects. Narrowly reelected to the Senate in 2018, he won't face voters in Texas again until 2024. He's also seen as a likely candidate for the GOP presidential nomination that year.
Cruz moved quickly on Thursday to try to contain the self-inflicted damage.
He issued a statement earlier in the day acknowledging an "infuriating week for Texans." He said he accompanied his family to Cancun, Mexico, on Wednesday after his daughters asked to go on a trip with friends, given that school was canceled for the week.
"Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon," Cruz wrote.
"My staff and I are in constant communication with state and local leaders to get to the bottom of what happened in Texas," he continued. "We want our power back, our water on, and our homes warm."
As he returned later Thursday to a state where hundreds of thousands of residents were still grappling with the fallout of a storm that crippled the power grid, he was more direct about the mistake.
"In hindsight," he said, "I wouldn't have done it."
Even the state Republican Party chair declined to come to Cruz's defense on Thursday.
"That's something that he has to answer to his constituents about," Texas GOP Chair Allen West said when asked whether Cruz's travel was appropriate while Texans are without power and water.
"I'm here trying to take care of my family and look after my friends and others that are still without power," West said. "That's my focus."
Hundreds of thousands of people in Texas woke up Thursday to a fourth day without power, and a water crisis was unfolding after winter storms wreaked havoc on the state's power grid and utilities.
Texas officials ordered 7 million people — one-quarter of the population of the nation's second-largest state — to boil tap water before drinking the water, after days of record low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and froze pipes.
In Austin, some hospitals faced a loss in water pressure and, in some cases, heat.
News of Cruz's absence quickly rippled across the state.
Livia Trevino, a 24-year-old whose Austin home was still without water Thursday, said she felt abandoned by government leaders.
"They are taking vacations and leaving the country, so they don't have to deal with this, and we are freezing to death. We don't have water and we don't have food," she said.
Democrats across Washington were eager to talk about the controversy.
One of Cruz's most aggressive critics on the left, Ocasio-Cortez, encouraged her supporters on Thursday to volunteer for a "welfare check phone bank" to help Texans affected by the storm.
"So many elected leaders in Texas have failed their constituents," the New York Democrat wrote in an email. "Instead of focusing on relief, they've chosen to go on Fox News to spread lies or to board a plane to Cancun."
Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki leaned into a question about Cruz's "whereabouts."
"I don't have any updates on the exact location of Sen. Ted Cruz nor does anyone at the White House," Psaki said, adding that President Joe Biden's administration is focused on "working directly with leadership in Texas and surrounding states on addressing the winter storm and the crisis at hand."
Cruz's staff reached out to the Houston Police Department on Wednesday afternoon to say the senator would be arriving at the airport, according to department spokesperson Jodi Silva. She said officers "monitored his movements" while Cruz was at the airport.
Silva could not say whether such requests are typical for Cruz's travel or whether his staff had made a similar request for his return flight.
U.S. Capitol Police officials and the Senate sergeant-at-arms have encouraged lawmakers and their staff to be conscious of potential threats and to consider advising law enforcement about their travel at airports and other transportation hubs.
Cruz's office did not immediately say whether the senator would self-quarantine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people who have traveled during the pandemic to get a coronavirus test three to five days after their return and to quarantine for a full week, regardless of the test results.
Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writers Dan Christian Rojas in Cancun, Mexico, Darlene Superville in Washington and Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.