Primary Delays Give Dewhurst's Rivals Time to Work

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst speaking to the press about budget and education matters on May 17, 2011.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst speaking to the press about budget and education matters on May 17, 2011.

Craig James said it out loud last week. Ted Cruz has laid it out in conversation. Tom Leppert’s version is in his e-mails to supporters.

They are running for second place in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

Each assumes that David Dewhurst, the state’s lieutenant governor, will finish first. And they share a strategy: Finish second and hope the race goes to a runoff in the dog days of summer.

Dewhurst has most of the advantages in the race. He’s an incumbent officeholder who will keep his current job if he loses this race. That freezes donors and others who might otherwise support someone else — who wants to make an enemy of a lieutenant governor?

He’s rich and has shown a willingness in past elections to tap his own bank account to help his campaign.

 

He has run statewide four times. Texas candidates always — always — come back from their first race with fresh stories about how big the state is. What that means, really, is that it is time-consuming and expensive to run and that newbies and regional candidates quickly become aware of how many places there are in Texas where they are complete strangers. Dewhurst has been at this long enough to have supporters on the ground in every part of the state. He’s well known.

Dewhurst doesn’t have a big base of haters in the Republican Party or obvious and horrible political blemishes. He has never been caught texting pictures of his underwear or selling appointments or anything like that. He has had some goofs — one of his campaigns included a German Luftwaffe officer in a magazine ad meant to emphasize his support for the military — but nothing that left a permanent political scar.

So Dewhurst has a title, money, a political network and a decent reputation.

His enemy is time.

Had nothing messed with the political calendar, Texas would be right in the middle of its early voting period for a Super Tuesday primary on March 6. But the war over the political maps for the Legislature and for Congress has pushed the party primary elections deeper into the year.

If the courts can put maps together by the first week of March, the earliest primary date is May 29, with a runoff on July 31. The next most likely date for the primary is June 26, with the runoff on Aug. 28.

Dewhurst is still the favorite. But the delays give James, Cruz and Leppert — and a posse of other Republicans — time to improve their political and financial strength. Their numbers could help, too. Ten people filed with the Republican Party for the Senate race. The four leaders are the people with the most money and thus the best chance to make themselves and their ideas known to voters.

If nine candidates can get an average of just 5.6 percent each in the primary, they can force a runoff. Some won’t get anything but a story to tell the grandkids. Others can be reasonably expected to get double-digit results.

 

That makes second place sort of a prize. That “winner” would get into a runoff with Dewhurst in late summer.

Nonjudicial statewide elections rarely go to runoffs in Texas, but this is true: Turnout in runoffs is generally dismal. Officials from both parties have told their redistricting judges in recent weeks that holding elections in the summer will probably dampen turnout.

For some of the candidates — Cruz comes to mind — that might be a blessing. He and his aides say his strength is with the movement conservatives who vote no matter what obstacles are in the way. Whichever candidate is stronger with those voters will, by their reckoning, win a low-turnout, late-summer election. Dewhurst has as much claim to that group as Cruz, but it is an interesting argument.

Even if that’s wrong, a small turnout limits the number of people who need to be convinced. And if a front-runner gets less than 50 percent in round 1, there is some evidence that more than half of the voters are willing to look at someone else.

For James, Leppert and Cruz, time is a friend. As long as Dewhurst is under 50 percent, all they have to worry about is one another.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.