It’s been a year since that impossible thing happened. Ted Cruz, in his first run for public office, beat the fabulously wealthy Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — himself the winner of four previous statewide elections — in a Republican primary runoff for the U.S. Senate.
Now the junior senator from Texas has joined that small and select group of Americans touring early primary states and denying that they are interested in running for president of the United States.
Cruz has a weird parallel to the current president. They are both lawyers. Their opponents are passionate and question their meager experience as officeholders and their eligibility for the nation’s top political job. President Obama has the so-called birthers to contend with; Cruz, who was born in Canada, is swatting at a low but persistent buzz about whether he’s got the right stuff, geographically, to be president. He says, for the record, that he has looked into the law and that he does, indeed, qualify for the office he says he is not currently seeking.
Whatever he does next, it’s what Cruz has done so far that has even made that question possible.
When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison decided not to run for re-election, all of the smart kids said the seat belonged to Dewhurst if he wanted it. He’s a bit stiff, as Texas politicians go, but he looks senatorial. He had those four successful campaigns under his belt — one for land commissioner and three for lieutenant governor. He is personally wealthy and has proved to be perfectly willing to spend his own money on his campaigns.
It was a midterm election of the sort that locks in the institutional political donors: Dewhurst was either going to be a U.S. senator or the lieutenant governor after the race ended, and it is not smart to pick a fight with the holder of either office.
And the primary opposition did not appear threatening. Cruz, a former state solicitor general, had never run for office. He was unknown to voters and appeared to have neither the time nor the money to last in the race. Tom Leppert, a former Dallas mayor, had only a regional following. Craig James, a former football player, was another political newcomer.
Slam-dunk, Dewhurst. Next question?
The primaries got delayed, giving Cruz and the others time to work. Dewhurst ignored signs that Cruz had been working the grass roots and then spent a bunch of money attacking him — at the time hoping, in the strange rationality of campaign politics, to sink Leppert. That made Cruz well known enough to get into a runoff. And then Dewhurst found, to his surprise, that the dreaded “moderate” label had been attached to him and that Cruz had successfully run to his right.
Cruz easily defeated his Democratic opponent, Paul Sadler, in November, took office in January and now, just six months later, is giving speeches in Iowa.
He hasn’t had time to do much but generate headlines in Washington, but his climb has made him the current patron saint of long-shot candidates and the stuff of nightmares for seemingly safe incumbents.
Like this: Attorney General Greg Abbott has every reason to be confident in his current pursuit of the governor’s office. He’s got money, his opponents don’t, the establishment is with him, he has won five statewide elections, yada, yada, yada. His chief opponent at the moment, Tom Pauken, has never held elected office and doesn’t have Abbott’s resources.
Dewhurst himself is racing to the right in his 2014 re-election bid. He has three strong Republican opponents and a tough primary ahead.
The Greg Abbotts of Texas politics have one piece of information Dewhurst did not have: When there are no strong Democrats running, there is no reason to concede the right to another Republican.
Cruz has had a short tenure in office, but on this first anniversary of his primary runoff win over Dewhurst you can see his impact on the Republican Party of Texas: He has become a verb.
Talk to Republican incumbents at the statewide level, in Congressional races, in legislative races and farther down the ballot, and you will hear it again and again, the new phrase in Texas Republican politics: “I don’t want to get Cruzed in my primary.”
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