cruzRepublican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas gets star treatment in the latest issue of TIME magazine.

Seven months into his Senate career, he has won a reputation as the chamber’s biggest troublemaker. Liberal pundits have called him a “political terrorist” and a “Taliban” extremist. To Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, he is a “schoolyard bully.” Republican John McCain christened him a “wacko bird.” And those epithets are mild compared with those muttered by colleagues from both parties behind closed doors.

But to movement conservatives around the country, Rafael Edward Cruz, 42, is something different: the Platonic ideal of a Tea Party legislator and just maybe the man to lead the GOP out of the Obama era. It’s not only that Cruz is good on God and guns. Or that he’s blessed with a bootstrap tale, Hispanic heritage and rhetorical gifts that complicate every liberal story line about conservatives being rich or racist or dumb. It’s also the fact that his slashing attacks on Republicans and Democrats alike shatter custom in the clubby Senate, where tradition dictates that members describe even colleagues they despise as “my friend.”

As a result, Cruz’s growing profile and his ascent in the early 2016 presidential polls worry Republican consultants, who took Barack Obama’s near sweep of swing states in 2012 as a sign the party needs to tack back toward the center to recapture the evolving American electorate. At a moment when others in the GOP are urging compromise, the Texan has bet big on combat. He helped lead the fight against expanded background checks on gun sales, joined Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster against Obama’s drone policy and fought against Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s push for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now he is launching a new crusade to defund the President’s health care law, raising the specter of a government shutdown that spooks Republicans more than Democrats. “Don’t blink,” Cruz tells the crowds.

But if calling out the “squishes” in the Republican “surrender caucus” has made him a pariah in Washington, that is more by design than accident. “Every time Establishment Senators and Washington insiders scold him, it’s a payday,” says Dave Carney, a veteran GOP strategist. “He thrives on the fact that insiders are saying this is not the way that it’s done. For the last 40 years, the way it’s been done sucks.”