AUSTIN -- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had barely been sworn in when he raised eyebrows across Washington.
During a January confirmation hearing for U.S. Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, Cruz's aggressive questioning of the former Republican senator made instant headlines. Cruz's unsubstantiated suggestion that Hagel had possibly received money from countries such as North Korea and Iran drew swift rebukes from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as comparisons to the discredited anti-communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.).
Less than two months later, a contentious exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) over gun laws would again put Cruz's confrontational approach center stage. Defying the traditionally silent role of a freshman senator, Cruz quickly earned a reputation as a Tea Party firebrand. Making trips to Iowa and other national primary states by summer, Cruz was soon fielding questions about possible presidential ambitions.
"I've been in the Senate all of seven months," Cruz said in a July interview with ABC's This Week.
Regardless, the summer swirled with questions over the whether Cruz, who was born in Canada to an American mother and thus a U.S. citizen by birth, could legally be elected president.
Cruz's outspoken stands against gun control and abortion earned plenty of praise from conservatives in 2013, yet it was a 21-hour speech against the Affordable Care Act in late September that commanded the airwaves and solidified Cruz as a bona fide Tea Party superstar.
Days later, a plan promoted by Cruz and a handful of fellow Tea Party senators to defund the health care law led to a two-week government shutdown and criticism from colleagues on both sides.
"I think we all, hopefully, have learned from that experience and it will not be repeated," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told media at the launch of his reelection campaign in November.
Cornyn downplayed the episode as a tactical disagreement despite a shared goal, but Cruz has declined to endorse the senior senator.
Cruz himself has acknowledged he may have made fewer friends than he has critics in the nation's capital, pointing to his 2012 campaign promise to refuse to participate in "go along to get along" politics.
"Nobody should be surprised, if you're trying to change Washington, that the Washington establishment pushes back," Cruz said in a December interview on This Week.
By year's end, Cruz was the second-most searched male politician in the world on Google and a runner-up for Time Magazine's person of the year. Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak said Cruz's approach has quickly made him a Tea party favorite for 2016.
"He has a mix of characteristics that you don't see in politics very much," said Mackowiak, listing boldness, intelligence and sharp communication skills among those characteristics. "He is someone who believes you can move public opinion with arguments and with debate."
At the same time, Democratic consultant Jason Stanford said Cruz and the shutdown have hurt the GOP. Stanford said that in the shutdown's immediate aftermath, "There were literally polls out there saying Republicans were just a little bit more popular than sexually transmitted diseases."
Yet, Cruz has shown an ability to inspire and mobilize the conservative grassroots like few before him. Mackowiak said that, along with Cruz's ability to engage in debate, could make him more than just a primary spoiler in 2016.
"If he ends up running for president, he's going to look at those polls which may not be that encouraging for the general election and say, like Reagan, I believe I can move the polls with argument and with debate. And that's going to be the big question," Mackowiak said.
Whatever he decides, he begins 2014 with the nation's attention.
Stay tuned this week for more of the 2013 political year in review, including state Sen. Wendy Davis.