U.S. Senate Race a GOP-Only Battle

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, right, at a U.S. Senate candidate debate on Jan. 12, 2012.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, right, at a U.S. Senate candidate debate on Jan. 12, 2012.

While Texans wait for the courts to determine most of the state's political races, the candidates for U.S. Senate have begun a campaign blitz in the run-up to this spring’s primary.

The Democrats aren’t considered to have much chance at winning the seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison. The front-runner in that primary is former state Rep. Paul Sadler.

"Sadler is going to be the Democratic nominee, but he's not going to have any momentum,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “He'll have a lot of trouble fundraising. And his name will be on the ballot; if you don't want to vote Republican, you'll vote for Sadler. But I don't think he'll be a factor in the race."

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

So as it's been for the last several elections, the action is in the GOP primary. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is leading the race, and he has name recognition across the state — and plenty of money.

 

All this leads many, including Jillson, to say the race is Dewhurst's to lose. Jillson says only a stumble on the campaign trail could derail the inevitable.

“And that has to be more than the fact that he's not a natural, dynamic strong campaigner,” he said. “There has to be a real stumble that would bring him to negative attention broadly in the state. Otherwise, I think he's the prohibitive favorite."

Trying to knock him off his perch are former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and former sports commentator, NFL player and SMU football star Craig James.

James is a late entrant into the race and has so far struggled to gain traction. Leppert has more support, including a strong base in Dallas. But the top Not-Dewhurst candidate is Cruz, who has been able to gain Tea Party support.

"The Tea Party pulled some upsets in the 2010 primary,” said conservative commentator Will Lutz. “Now we are in a different political environment."

Weaker or not, Lutz says, the Tea Party support shows how well Cruz has campaigned across the state, speaking in front of many local conservative groups. And with the Senate primary date uncertain thanks to court entanglements over redistricting, a smaller turnout could benefit Cruz and his more dedicated fans.

“If you have a lower-turnout election, the people who have less money but a very committed band of supporters, which is in this case the challengers, that benefits them," Lutz said.

But Lutz cautions that this fight is by no means a typical race pitting the establishment against the Tea Party. He says the lieutenant governor has helped pass plenty of laws popular with the Republican base, from the Tea Party to anti-abortion groups to business leaders.

 

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