SARASOTA -- Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas received one raucous standing ovation after another Thursday night moments after he accepted the Sarasota Republican Party's 2014 Statesman of the Year Award.
The event, which drew a crowd estimated at 1,800 at the Sarasota Hyatt, had the feel of a rally for a 2016 presidential candidate. Cruz did nothing to defuse the impression.
The Cuban-American, one of only three Latinos in the Senate, is criticized and admired for his 21-hour, 19-minute filibuster on the Senate floor Sept. 24, 2013, against President Barack Obama's Affordable Health Care Act.
He smiled and said nothing at one point when the crowd chanted for about 30 seconds straight: "Run, Ted, Run."
"I would love for him to be a candidate," said Sheila Connolly, one of six enthusiastic Manatee County Republicans who came early enough Thursday to claim front-row seats in the hotel ballroom to hear the controversial Cruz.
"I'm not sure 2016 is his time, but he can take us where we need to go," added Connolly, who lives in Stony Brook in Heritage Harbor.
Every year since 2011, the Sarasota Republican Party has handed out a Statesman of the Year Award to a person who "stands strong on what he or she believes," said Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters.
Previous Statesmen of the Year: former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, real estate tycoon Donald Trump and talk show host Sean Hannity.
This year, Connolly and fellow Heritage Harbor Republicans Betsy Chartier and Sandy and Don Willetts all cheered the senator along with Berit Roberts of Waterlefe and John Westberg of East Manatee.
Cruz touched on some of his political positions, which include pro-life, gun rights and cutting back the National Security Agency's role in American's private lives.
He got cheers when he advised the audience to leave their cell phones on so President Obama could hear what he had to say, a reference to the NSA's eavesdropping.
He spoke passionately about jobs and economic growth, saying his father came to America with $100 sewn into his underwear and got a job washing dishes for 50 cents an hour before educating himself enough to earn a slice of the American dream.
"But that 50-cents-an-hour job doesn't exist today because small businesses are taxed to death by government," Cruz said. "And if it did exist, it would only be 29 hours a week to avoid Obamacare."
Cruz said he was "profoundly optimistic" America can bounce back from what he called its "economic malaise."
"We are back in the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter was president," Cruz said. "Something incredible happened at that point at the grassroots level in the country. There was a Reagan revolution. It's happening again. Millions of Americans like you are saying, 'We want our country back.' "
Cruz stepped down from the podium when his speech was over and shook hands with the Manatee County contingent.
"He's an inspiring guy," Chartier said. "He touched on liberty a lot in his speech. He reminded us that when you are born into liberty and have it, it's easy to take it for granted. I think that was the thing I will remember most from his speech."
Chartier was referring to a moment when Cruz asked the crowd how they would feel if they knew that one future generation of Americans might ask their parents: "What was it like to be free?"
"Together we can restore the shining city on the hill that is the United States of America," Cruz said in closing, triggering the audience to rise and cheer madly.
The award was a coup for Sarasota's Republican Party but not all were applauding.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said it is "shocking" Cruz was being honored in Sarasota.
"The Sarasota Republican Party is actually honoring him as the 'Statesman of the Year.' That really says something about the sad state of the Republican Party today.
"We're talking about a guy who just in his brief time in Washington -- he hasn't even been there but a year and a half -- and he orchestrated the government shutdown that cost our economy $24 billion," Wasserman Schultz said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.