In Senate Race, Out-of-State Stars Outshined Texans

By Tuesday’s runoff, the Republican primary battle between Ted Cruz, the former Texas solicitor general, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had grown into something larger than a fight for an open U.S. Senate seat.

With Gov. Rick Perry and many other members of the state’s Republican leadership endorsing Dewhurst and national conservative movement stars rallying around Cruz, the race had become a political tug of war and a rare opportunity to gauge which side had more sway with the state’s diehard Republican electorate.

The contest, it turned out, was not as evenly matched as many had assumed. Cruz defeated Dewhurst by more than 150,000 votes out of 1.1 million votes cast.

“Clearly, from the viewpoint of the voters, the endorsements of the Texas politicians was meaningless,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist and consultant who has worked with candidates across the political spectrum. “Dewhurst got nothing from them.”

Dewhurst’s bid attracted endorsements from many of the state’s best-known elected officials. Along with Perry, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Comptroller Susan Combs and 18 Republicans in the Texas Senate backed him. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also endorsed Dewhurst.

A lengthy list of nationally known conservatives traveled to Texas to rally support for Cruz, including former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, as well as Senate Republicans seen as Tea Party icons, like Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

Perry, fresh off a failed presidential bid, was Dewhurst’s most visible supporter, calling voters, regularly speaking to reporters and appearing in television ads to aid Dewhurst’s campaign.

“David’s record is my record,” Perry said last week at a news conference in Houston. He added that Texas’ success is “the result of good conservative leadership and a good conservative record. David Dewhurst has stood by my side as the lieutenant governor of this state for the last nine years.”

Such praise did not hinder Cruz, who transformed Dewhurst’s decade-plus record of accomplishments in statewide office into a liability among Republican primary voters.

When Perry called Dewhurst his partner in the Legislature, Cruz’s campaign pointed to a disagreement the pair had nine years ago over how to cover a revenue shortfall. When Dewhurst supporters praised the billions in budget cuts the Legislature approved in 2011, Cruz pointed to accounting maneuvers that made the cuts seem larger than they were.

On the campaign trail, Cruz dismissed Dewhurst’s supporters as Austin lobbyists and “everyone who makes their living keeping the government gravy train going.” He also suggested that Perry had only endorsed Dewhurst out of a desire to get him out of the lieutenant governor’s office, a charge Perry denied.

At the same time, Cruz tried to keep his criticism on Dewhurst from being perceived as a swipe at the Texas Republican leaders who were supporting him.

“Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is trying very hard to hide behind the records of other conservatives, but at the end of the day, there are only two names on this runoff ballot for Senate: my name and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst,” Cruz told reporters last week. “And there’s a very clear contrast between the records of those two candidates.”

Dewhurst’s campaign worked to frame the network of out-of-state conservative personalities and groups working on Cruz’s behalf as meddlers who did not have the state’s interests at heart. He singled out the Club for Growth, a pro-business group based in Washington, that poured more than $5 million into the race, as trying to “buy this election.”

“I’m after the endorsement of the people of Texas, not different celebrities that come into Texas,” Dewhurst said on Fox News on Sunday. “For me, Texans are my celebrities.”

But out-of-state personalities like Palin and Paul drew hundreds of people to rallies for Cruz and appeared to energize supporters, no small feat when low turnout was a concern in a mid-summer runoff.

“These were people of credibility from conservative circles,” Miller said. “They gave him significant stature that he didn’t and probably couldn’t achieve on his own in a primary race of short duration.”

The struggle between Texas and out-of-state conservative leaders for the hearts and minds of Texas voters made for some dramatic scenes in the last two months of the race.

At a rally for Cruz last week in The Woodlands, Palin mocked Perry, a onetime ally, for backing Dewhurst. Palin drew laughter and cheers when she pointed to the boots on her feet and said Perry bought them for her, and added, “At least in that one case he made a good decision.”

A month earlier, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who has long been considered a Tea Party darling, had Cruz as a guest on his political radio show. Patrick had not endorsed in the race at the time but had publicly praised Dewhurst’s record.

The exchange between Patrick and Cruz devolved into a heated argument over whether Cruz was unfairly maligning the record of Dewhurst and, subsequently, the entire Texas Senate.

“We’re going to have some people listening today that think this is rather extraordinary because they are going to say, ‘Who’s Ted Cruz running against — David Dewhurst or Dan Patrick?’” Patrick told Cruz.

Patrick later endorsed Dewhurst.

Ultimately, neither Dewhurst nor the Texas lawmakers supporting him could change voters’ perception of Dewhurst as less conservative than Cruz. Their backing also fed into a perception of Dewhurst as an entrenched politician — political poison at a time when voters were looking for an outsider prepared to shake up the halls of Congress, said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

“I think generally people were ready for a change,” Riddlesperger said. "And Dewhurst was seen by many Republican voters as part of the old guard."

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.