David Dewhurst versus the world: Those five simple words describe the likely scenario for the 2012 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Yet 14 months before primary day, some Austin and D.C. insiders are acting as if a victory by the lieutenant governor is inevitable. Two-thirds of The Texas Tribune's weekly insider panel believe Dewhurst will prevail, and no less a respected prognosticator than the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy flatly stated that if he got in the race, he would “clear the field.”
There is little doubt that Dewhurst, who isn't officially a candidate but is as much of one as the nascent legislative session allows him to be, is the front-runner right now. He enjoys the most important advantage at this stage of the race: cash. His vast personal fortune ensures that his campaign would have plenty of resources available. As a former potential competitor of his once recounted to me, "Dewhurst looked me in the eye and said that if I ran against him, he would 'bury me in money.'" That will surely be a part of Dewhurst's strategic plan.
Beyond his ability to spend millions, he’s been the state's No. 2 elected official for eight years and served as land commissioner for four years before that. He has successfully faced the statewide electorate several times and, in the process, has gained the name identification that all his potential challengers lack — and costs millions to obtain. Moreover, he has a record to run on. His two-plus terms as lieutenant governor allow him to take some of the credit for Texas’ relative economic strength in the same way Rick Perry did against Kay Bailey Hutchison.
So if Dewhurst is inevitable, why are so many credible candidates running against him? They see an opportunity. It’s more than the fact that Texas has a large bench of ambitious Republicans in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. It's that, over the last few years, several events have augured a competitive primary: Rick vs. Kay, the rise of the Tea Party and the opposition to Speaker Joe Straus.
Historically, Texas Republicans avoided primaries in order to stay united for the general election. There wasn’t a serious top-of-the-ticket Republican primary for 20 years until Rick vs. Kay. Party leaders actively discouraged primaries while Texas Republicans established themselves as a monolithic force, and this tradition continued more or less unbroken until 2010. Despite the bruising battle against Hutchison, Perry cruised to a double-digit re-election victory. The upshot is that Texas Republicans no longer fear losing to Democrats enough to avoid primaries. A great number of down-ballot politicians who've looked in the mirror every day and asked when it will finally be their time see 2012 as their chance to make the person staring back at them the next senator from Texas.
The last year also saw the rise of the Tea Party as a populist electoral force that views primary challenges as a way to implement its agenda. It's largely anti-establishment and suspicious of politicians — and most Tea Partiers see Dewhurst as an establishment politician. Whereas some other Texas Republicans jumped wholeheartedly on the Tea Party bandwagon, Dewhurst has little connection to it or natural affinity with its populism. Moreover, the Tea Parties provide a base of available activists and voters who reduce the power of Dewhurst’s ability to self-fund.
You may be wondering: Doesn't the unsuccessful attempt to topple Straus mean that Dewhurst has nothing to fear? In fact, the challenge to the speaker mounted by conservative groups helped develop relationships between some of the more traditional right-leaning political groups and the Tea Parties. Most of those groups credit former Speaker Tom Craddick more than the lieutenant governor for the legislative victories of the last decade. Even though they think Dewhurst often makes the right decisions, they often feel like they have to push him to get there. So while they lost the battle to dethrone Straus, that defeat will probably motivate many of them to both (1) fight harder against Dewhurst and (2) coalesce around a single conservative candidate.
While Dewhurst will probably be one of the top two vote-getters in a March 2012 primary, it’s not a given. He is liked by many, actively disliked by a few and truly loved by even less. He has the advantages of a front-runner, but he also faces an enthusiasm gap in his supporters compared to those of other candidates. In certain scenarios, he could become a target for the entire field of candidates, and that would be difficult to overcome.
How many people file to be on the ballot will be a major determinant of who advances to the runoff that will very likely follow the primary. Until the January 2012 filing deadline, many candidates are engaged in what might be called sub-primaries to see who advances. Winning a sub-primary starts by raising money, getting endorsements and rising in the polls, but the ultimate achievement occurs if the sub-primary opponent decides not to file.
The clearest sub-primaries right now are former Secretary of State Roger Williams vs. Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, and former Solicitor General Ted Cruz vs. Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams. Roger Williams’ worst nightmare came to fruition when Leppert announced he wouldn’t run for re-election as Dallas mayor, signaling a run for Senate. In the other corner, Cruz and Michael Williams have been tapped as the movement conservative frontrunners by Senate kingmaker Jim DeMint of South Carolina. The immediate challenge for those candidates is to win their sub-primaries even more than it is to rein in Dewhurst as the frontrunner.
Exactly how crucial the sub-primaries will be depends on the size of the field. In a large field, candidates will look for their own niches that make them stand out and help them net enough votes to get into a runoff — whether a single issue, moving to the right or to the center or a regional focus. If the field contains just three serious candidates, that's much different than if it contains seven or more serious contenders. As the field gets larger, each candidate has a greater need to make noise and stand out. If seven people run, it's much better to be loved by 20 percent who will definitely vote for you than it is to be the second choice of 100 percent of voters and get zero votes on Election Day. That could work in favor of someone like Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, who is both the only San Antonian and the only female likely to make a serious run right now.
Something in between a small and large field — where each candidate has already won his (or her) sub-primary and is looking to dip into his pool of voters in order to break out of the pack — might be the most dangerous situation for Dewhurst. He won’t have a specific candidate to attack and define as he might in a small field, whereas all the candidates will working to define him. In a large field, candidates will have to attack each other in the hopes of making the runoff, while Dewhurst can float above the field and appear senatorial by airing positive ads.
Reduce the race to its simplest form and it looks like we'll have a large field. The likeliest outcome, therefore, is a runoff between Dewhurst and whoever can become the choice of the non-Dewhurst conservatives. At the moment, that appears to be either Cruz or Michael Williams. In a large field, how the race will develop is anyone's guess, but one thing is certain: No one should call the outcome before the horses are out of the gate.
Evan Van Ness writes the Rick Perry vs. the World blog.