David Dewhurst might be the safest bet for the U.S. Senate since former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Dewhurst is personally wealthy, a business success, a statewide officeholder since 1999 and lieutenant governor since 2003. Two of his potential foes have already dropped out, with one openly admitting Dewhurst's long shadow made the race a risky political proposition.
Nothing in politics is guaranteed, of course. Crist, for all the certainty and hype, lost to Marco Rubio, and that campaign stands as a parable for anyone who wants to call an early end to the Texas race. Dewhurst is a formidable candidate, to be sure, but some of his party's conservatives and their affiliated organizations find him wanting — including some loud ones like FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group, and the Club for Growth, which promotes fiscal conservatism.
He's not the only Texan who wants the job. On the Republican side, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is running. Texas Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones of San Antonio is in the race. Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz is racking up conservative endorsements. SMU-football-star-turned-television-sports-analyst Craig James has expressed interest but hasn't entered the race. The same goes for state Sen. Dan Patrick, a radio talk show host with a strong following in Houston. On the Democratic side, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez is in the hunt, and actor Tommy Lee Jones is a favorite rumor mill topic.
Dewhurst is expected to announce his plans next week. He's widely expected to run for the U.S. Senate — in fact, he's expressed interest since it became clear that Kay Bailey Hutchison would not seek re-election. But he's also well aware of what happened to the last guy elected lieutenant governor of Texas. Gov. George W. Bush won the presidency and Rick Perry moved into state's top office. If the fates shine on Perry, Dewhurst could get the same promotion by doing nothing now.
If he joins the race for U.S. Senate, the 65-year-old Dewhurst starts as the favorite. More voters know his name, after 12 years in office, and while there are large numbers of undecided voters at this early stage, he's got a big lead over other candidates. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in May, 25 percent of Republican registered voters chose Dewhurst over the other candidates, none of whom registered support in the double digits. The hopes of those other candidates were in another number: 57 percent of those voters were either undecided or were holding out for a "another Republican candidate." The results of a February 2011 UT/Tribune poll were almost identical.
Last month, former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams dropped out of the Senate race to run in a new congressional seat that includes his home in Arlington. Dewhurst was a big reason for the switch. "With the name ID that he has and with the personal wealth that he has, you have to have the sustained ability to be engaged, and I did not see that," Williams says. "That was not going to happen. As long as he was either in it, out of it, might get in it, might get out of it, he does indeed cast a very, very long shadow over the race. I'm just being honest.
"It made it, for me, difficult to raise dollars and other kinds of things. The conversations would go as follows: 'You'd make a great United States senator. What's David going to do?'" Williams says, laughing. "It's not that they would not be with you if he was in it, but until he makes a decision, things just aren't moving. He's not just a rich guy. He's also a lieutenant governor … and if he gets in the race and he loses, he's still lieutenant governor next time. Or maybe governor, the way things are going."
The congressional seat, created in June during the Legislature's special session, was a good fit for him, and Williams decided to jump. "Circumstances just said for me that it was more prudent to look at other ways to have an opportunity to serve," he says.
Roger Williams, a car dealer, political fundraiser and former Texas secretary of state, was the next one out, exiting the race for Senate and entering the race for the U.S. House — in the same seat Michael Williams is seeking. He doesn't identify Dewhurst as the cause but, like his congressional opponent, says he will be just as happy in the lower house of Congress as in the upper one.
Both men had lagged in fundraising. In first-quarter campaign reports, Leppert was in front (in large part because of contributions by the candidate himself), followed by Roger Williams and Cruz. In a primary race that's expected to cost millions of dollars, nobody else had more than $500,000 in the bank as of the end of March. New reports for contributions and spending through the end of June are due at the Federal Election Commission this month. Dewhurst, if he gets in next week, won't have to show his financial hand until third-quarter reports are due in October.
If he gets in, he's got a couple of advantages. As Williams says, he's the lieutenant governor — nearly as good in some ways as being an incumbent, at least for fundraising purposes. He doesn't have to tell donors what his current job is. They know that. Most of them also know he can run for the U.S. Senate without resigning from the Texas Legislature and that, if he loses, he'll still be the presiding officer in the state Senate. Most of them have that gubernatorial succession thing in mind, too, especially with Perry looking more and more like a presidential candidate.
Plus, he's rich. Everybody in federal races has to come to grips with campaign finance limits of $2,500 per person per election. A contested Republican primary in Texas costs millions. Most candidates for statewide office fail before the election, by not raising enough money to bring attention to their ideas and their personalities. Dewhurst, at least theoretically, would already be over that hurdle on the first day he entered the race.
He'll need it. Some of his party's conservatives aren't in the Dewhurst fan club. Erick Erickson, who writes the popular RedState blog, recently accused Dewhurst of "continuing to play both sides of the fence." Erickson's bill of particulars against the lieutenant governor, whom he calls "DewCrist," includes these:
• "He has approached the budget as a math problem rather than an opportunity to downsize government."
• "DewCrist named Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a liberal Democrat and the University of Texas’ best friend in the Legislature, to chair the Senate’s higher education committee."
But Erickson acknowledged Dewhurst's strengths back in January, just as Hutchison announced her decision not to seek another term. "The rumor is that, as we all expected David Dewhurst, who is more like DewCrist, is going to be running for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s Senate seat," he wrote. "Senator Hutchison has said she is not going to run again. DewCrist has the money and is the man to beat. We must beat him."
Each opponent has a theory of how to do that. Leppert is running as the candidate with real world experience; in the words of Shawn McCoy, a spokesperson, this would be a race between "a businessman, a career politician and a lawyer." He's leaving out everyone but his guy, Dewhurst and Cruz. Jones, like most of the candidates, is running against the Washington of Barack Obama, sounding the theme that worked so well for Perry and against Hutchison in the last Republican primary.
Cruz's tack, particular with Michael Williams out of the race, is to corral conservative support and to run, in a way, the same race Perry ran against Hutchison. Not the Texas vs. Washington part, but the conservative vs. moderate part. He's got the backing of several conservative groups and individuals and is trying to build momentum with endorsements and straw-poll wins. The idea, apparently, is to run to the right and crowd Dewhurst toward the middle, as Perry did to Hutchison, and as outside conservative groups tried to do to House Speaker Joe Straus when he ran for a second term in that post last January. And to raise enough money to compete.
Patrick could spoil that. If the conservative-moderate line plays in the primary, Patrick would split conservative votes with Cruz and, if she can raise the money to compete, with Jones. Leppert, who is the money leader without Dewhurst in the race, would be vying for moderate votes.
"While fundraising is important, no candidate is going to be able to buy the race," Cruz argues. "No Texan likes it when a self-financed candidate attempts to buy a race."
That said, it'll cost a minimum of $5 million and probably more like $10 million to run a competitive primary race, according to consultants and candidates inside and outside these campaigns. A week of statewide television, for instance, can cost more than $1 million. So can a statewide mailing.
Over the next six months, the candidates will be trying to raise enough money to let voters know who they are and what they're about. If Dewhurst is in the contest, they concede they'll be outspent. Their hope is that the voters will see past the ads and choose someone other than the rich guy.