Ted Cruz's Texas Tea

It wasn't supposed to work this way. Much as Mitt Romney was supposed to cruise into the GOP presidential nomination, Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst was supposed to have an easy path to the U.S. Senate. Dewhurst, after all, has a been a loyal soldier to Governor Rick Perry for the better part of nine years. He's toed the party line, pushing the state Senate chamber into ever more conservative territory, and he had a limitless campaign fund from his own personal wealth. Now, state insiders assumed, was his time to move up the ladder.

Instead, he's locked into a tight runoff against a Tea Party favorite, and much like Romney during the presidential race, he's stuck responding to accusations of moderation, begging his audience to believe that he's just as conservative and just as hard-line as his opposition. But unlike Romney, Dewhurst has become the underdog—and a loss is looking more and more likely.

Dewhurst's fall can be attributed largely to Ted Cruz, the Tea Party candidate and former solicitor general who forced Dewhurst into a runoff. 

Two polls released Thursday showed Dewhurst not only trailing generally but trailing big when it came to enthusiastic voters. As The Dallas Morning News' Tom Bennett reports:

Wenzel Strategies—which, as Politico notes, correctly predicted tea party Senate upsets in Indiana and Nebraska, released on Thursday a survey showing Cruz winning, 48 to 38, among likely GOP voters.
 
A separate poll released Thursday by Public Policy Polling shows Cruz leading the lieutenant governor 49-44 among likely GOP voters, a significant shift in a race that’s long had Dewhurst as the frontrunner.
 

The Wenzel Strategies poll has Cruz winning 59-28 among tea party voters, a group some experts predict are more likely to turn out at the voting booth. And the PPP survey shows Cruz leading Dewhurst 59-36 among those who said they were “very excited” to vote in the election.

When an election is held in the hotter-than-hell part of a scorching Texas summer—July 31, in this case—odds are turnout will be low, and those who are actually eager to vote are more valuable than ever. Among the chattering classes in Austin, many speculate that Dewhurst is a long shot now—a far cry from the easy favorite he was not all that long ago.

Ted Cruz is everything the Tea Party has been looking for. He has a great story—he says his father came to the country from Cuba with $100 sewn into his underwear. He went to Harvard, but he registers as far from an elite. He's Latino, he's religious, and he's got an anti-government message that he delivers with zeal. He served as solicitor general, so he can claim some experience, but he's also never held elected office. As a recent Texas Observer profile noted, many see him as Reaganesque.

He's also been extremely lucky.

Initially, few counted Cruz as a major force, and few people knew much about him at all. Then a protracted redistricting battle forced the state to delay its primaries, not once but twice. The state was supposed to have its candidates sorted by early March—when the race for the GOP presidential nomination would have been the major focus and few would have paid much attention to second-tier senatorial candidates. Instead, with the primaries set for May, Cruz had two extra months to define his candidacy—at a time when there was little else vying for voter attention. He began to paint Dewhurst as an establishment moderate. He caught the attention of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and national Tea Party groups and spoke at CPAC. 

Meanwhile, Dewhurst was struggling more and more. His attacks against Cruz were lame at best—that he'd once defended a Chinese company against an American businessman, that he was tied to communism, and more embarrassingly, that he was "a secret Canadian." Moderate former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert was beginning to gain appeal among business conservatives, another voting bloc Dewhurst planned on winning. The lieutenant governor was fending off competitors on both sides, while Cruz was building momentum. By the time the primary date was approaching, a runoff was looking increasingly certain—as were Cruz's odds of being in it.

In the end, Cruz netted 34 percent of the vote, not that much behind Dewhurst's 45 percent.

But Cruz also benefited from the strange political landscape in Texas—a landscape largely formed and dominated by Rick Perry. Love him or hate him, those who observe Perry generally agree that he's a uniquely talented politician (on the statewide level, at least). With a remarkable sense of timing and charisma, the governor has managed to be both an establishment paragon and a Tea Party hero. That's a tough line to walk, particularly in Texas, where, with such a dominant GOP, party infighting is a huge part of the political landscape. Perry's been able to keep a solid platform of business interests going while jumping onto the Tea Party boat early and endearing himself to both factions.

Dewhurst, by contrast, is not a charismatic fellow. He's awkward, with a reputation for being downright weird. He's never commanded much fear—among the senators who have served under him, there are frequent jokes about his habitual absences, his need for constant air-conditioning, and the like. When Perry's disastrous presidential campaign came to a close, he returned to a state that had seen him vulnerable, in some ways for the first time. If there was going to be a revolt against a Perry dictate, it made sense that it would come against Dewhurst, whose wealth and odd demeanor make him an easy target. When Perry repeated his endorsement of Dewhurst at the state GOP convention last month, he was greeted with boos—a first for the governor.

Ironically, however, Dewhurst is being accused of moderation after one of the most austere legislative sessions in state history. The Senate proposed less severe cuts than the House, which passed a budget that would have crippled public education while the Senate's version merely cut off its hands. Dewhurst has largely adhered to Perry-style conservatism, which has devastated state services at all levels. Yet Dewhurst is often stuck responding to Cruz's accusations that he's too centrist. (The Texas Tribune recently noted that the two candidates agree on almost everything.) 

Dewhurst's position is strikingly similar to the situation Romney faced during the GOP presidential primaries—but the outcome may be quite different. Rick Santorum got Romney on the ropes, promising that he too was a conservative, striving to endear himself to the Tea Party that approached him with suspicion. In that battle, Romney ultimately survived. But he wouldn't have won Texas. Increasingly, it's looking like Dewhurst won't either. 

 

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That Dallas Morning News reporter's name is Tom Benning.

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