The three Republicans running against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst are, at the moment, running for second place — for a spot, they hope, in a May 27 runoff against a wounded incumbent.
The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll had Dewhurst in the lead, at 26 percent, followed by state Sen. Dan Patrick at 13 percent, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at 10 percent and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples in fourth at 5 percent. The margin of error on that question in the poll was +/- 5.02 percentage points.
A big number — 46 percent — said they haven’t thought about the race enough to have an opinion. If you blow that up, assigning the undecided votes in the same proportions as the decided ones, Dewhurst would be within spitting distance of what he needs to get out of the contest without a runoff.
The votes won’t necessarily break that way, but it points to the possibility — not a prediction, but a possibility — that Dewhurst could win the race without a runoff.
The runoff seems more likely, if only because there are four proven candidates in the race. That certainly seems to be the way the candidates are reading it; every forum and debate has the obligatory slaps at the incumbent followed by sniping between the challengers. Lately, that has been hottest and heaviest between Patrick and Staples.
And with Dewhurst leading the pack, in name ID and financially, the other three appear to be running for second place and the chance to do to Dewhurst in the lieutenant governor’s race what Ted Cruz did to him in last year’s primary runoff for the U.S. Senate (when he got 56.8 percent to Dewhurst’s 43.2 percent) after finishing second in the primary (getting 34.2 percent to Dewhurst’s 44.6 percent).
It’s obviously better for Dewhurst to win without a runoff — no incumbent wants to go two rounds in a referendum on the job he or she has been doing. And after his July 2012 experience, a runoff could result in a permanent twitch.
But if there is a runoff, who would be the most desirable challenger? Of the three, Patterson has so far (as of the last reports) raised more money than Patrick and has the oldest ties to the loudest, populist part of the GOP. Staples, conservative as he is, comes closest to being an establishment Republican, if only because he is not as Tea-stained as Patterson or Patrick. And Patrick vies with Staples for the social conservatives, but makes the establishment nervous.
Dewhurst, after losing his race to Cruz last year, ran toward Cruz’s supporters rather than running back to his own: He’s paying more heed to the populists than to the establishment. But he might be able to run back to those folks if he finds himself in a runoff.
Dewhurst’s vote count dropped from the primary to the runoff in 2012, while Cruz’s rose. Among other things, that’s an indication of how conservative those voters are; it would be hard for Dewhurst to run to the right of any of his potential runoff challengers, especially if they have serious financial or grassroots support, or both. If Republican voters are leaning back toward the establishment by then — and the partisans hoping for that seem to be doing so without a stitch of evidence — Dewhurst might look good in comparison.
There will be plenty of time to regroup after the first round, if there is no winner in the primary on March 4. The runoff is May 27 — 12 weeks later.