Can Rick Perry's Playbook Work in the Texas Senate Race?

Texas Governor Rick Perry is famous for delivering negative ads that send his opponents' campaigns reeling; they tend to contain such wild, over-the-top accusations that responding to them is tricky business. In the 2002 gubernatorial race, when he was fending off Democratic billionaire Tony Sanchez, the governor pulled out a last-minute ad that basically accused the candidate of laundering money for drug cartels. In his latest battle for the Governor's Mansion, against Houston Mayor Bill White, Perry's team found a police officer's widow who said that White's "sanctuary city" policies led an undocumented worker to kill her husband. The Perry team has long been feared for such ads—and their devastating effect.

Now that the Perry team is working Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst's runoff campaign for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison, you might have thought similar ads would help bring down his novice Tea Party challenger, Ted Cruz. But after a couple of days on the airwaves, it seems the ads aren't having the intended effect. Instead, with the party divided and many conservatives backing Cruz, the ads have failed to change the momentum in the race. In some ways, they've actually given Cruz a larger platform.

The latest ad attacking Cruz has all the tell-tale signs of the Perry shop. It's theatrical, with ominous music and grainy camerawork. And the accusation it makes is huge: that Cruz has helped defend perpetrators of the heinous "Kids for Cash" scheme in Pennsylvania, in which two judges imposed harsh sentences on children and sent them to for-profit detention centers in return for payoffs from the centers' operators. The ad shows Cruz saying, "The victim of that crime was the IRS, it was the federal treasury. It wasn't the kids."

 

But this time, instead of crippling Cruz's campaign, the ad has prompted discussion—and some outcry—from conservative outlets. Not too shockingly, the ad overstates its case—Cruz litigated a civil lawsuit for one of the men who built the for-profit prisons, arguing that Traveler's Insurance should have to pay damage claims against him for the "kids for cash" lawsuits. (The man ultimately lost.) Cruz's line that it "wasn't the kids" was arguing that his client was responsible only for swindling the IRS by paying off the judges and not disclosing it, but that he was not responsible for the actual plan that improperly sent children to the prisons in exchange for money. (Since then, however, the man has entered into a plea deal with prosecutors.

At The National Review, which put Cruz on its cover as a rising conservative star, reporters tracked down the full quotation from Cruz and linked to his campaign's explanation of events. Groups that supported Cruz quickly rose to his defense; the Tea Party Express sent out an email blast accusing Dewhurst of "using tactics we usually see from the far left," and Cruz himself took to conservative talk radio to denounce the claims.

Most interesting, however, was a vehement post from Erick Erickson, the editor of the conservative RedState.com who frequently supported Perry as "the most consistent conservative" during the presidential primary and complimented his campaign staff. "I have always had a lot of respect for the guys who are running David Dewhurst’s campaign, but I’m starting to see now why Rick Perry had no chance of getting elected President," he wrote. "The same team running Dewhurst’s campaign ran Perry’s Presidential campaign and has stooped to what I thought would be an impossible low."

Dewhurst, who was supposed to win this thing easily, has been on the ropes as the July 31 runoff nears. Last week, polls showed Cruz—who lost the first multi-candidate primary by 11 points—with a lead. In the latest filing period, Cruz raised more than Dewhurst, though the lite guv has spent more thanks to his personal largesse. At the final debate between the candidates Tuesday, Dewhurst's accusations against his opponent only afforded Cruz a chance to go on the offensive. He argued not only that the charges were false, but that Dewhurst was trying to distract from criticisms of his own record
 
Though the race is undoubtedly close, this chapter of Perry's playbook doesn't seem to be working for Dewhurst. And as I wrote last week, Dewhurst doesn't have Perry's political talent when it comes to appealing to both the GOP establishment and the Tea Party. The Tea Party types and those who are simply tired of Perry's reign have come together behind Cruz. The former solicitor general has endorsements from every national Tea Party group you can imagine; Grover Norquist has sent boatloads of cash into the state. Cruz hasn't run for elected office before—a point he makes frequently—and that leaves him as a bit of a cipher. Meanwhile, Dewhurst has a lengthy record for Cruz to pour over, from his speeches to his role in crafting budgets, which included considering different tax mechanisms and occassional increases in spending. While just about every state senator has defended Dewhurst's role in budget negotiations—and while it's unquestionable that he's led an extremely austere state Senate—that hasn't stopped the lieutenant governor from being painted as a moderate who negotiates too easily with Democrats. Cruz got a lot of play out of his own attack ads noting that Dewhurst's office pulled speeches from his state website in which the lieutenat governor supported amnesty for undocumented immigrants. 
 
The best news for Dewhurst came just after Tuesday's debate, when he got an endorsement from former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. Leppert came in third in the primary for the Senate seat and helped force the runoff between Dewhurst and Cruz. He also was the subject of a negative ad campaign from Dewhurst. Ironically, the lieutenant governor explained that before getting the endorsement, he apologized for the negative ads he'd run against Leppert.
 

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