Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is carrying a lot of political hopes and dreams on his shoulders in his U.S. Senate campaign.
It’s not what you might think. People are lined up for his job when he moves on. People are lined up for those people’s jobs when they move on.
His departure for Washington would clear a space on a political escalator that has been more or less stationary for the last decade. The Republicans at the top — from the U.S. Senate down to the land office — hung up the “closed” sign years ago. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s decision not to seek another term opened a spot. Dewhurst’s grab for that could open his spot. Three statewide officials openly covet his place. Hopefuls are lined up for their jobs.
What if he doesn’t go anywhere? What if Tuesday’s primary throws Dewhurst — the front-runner, the establishment candidate, practically the incumbent — into a runoff?
The runoff is on July 31, an electoral no-fly zone. That’s a time in Texas when people able to leave for vacation are gone, when the heat turns green suburban lawns into crunchy brown squares, when voting is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Who would show up for that, besides the dedicated and often very ideological activists in the two parties, and those scattered citizens who vote habitually, no matter what? Is that the electorate that will put establishment candidates on the November ballot?
Dewhurst has dined for months on the conventional wisdom that his money, his reputation and tenure in the party, and his experience running statewide elections, would easily carry him to victory — despite a field of nine Republicans in the primary, at least two of whom pose moderate threats to the guy in front.
Now, even his campaign quietly concedes that a runoff is possible. And a runoff for a guy like this can only mean trouble. It’s a dent in the fender. A roach in the kitchen. A scratch on the screen.
A sign of vulnerability.
Think of it. It would give the second-place finisher — in this case, that’s probably going to be former Solicitor General Ted Cruz or former Mayor Tom Leppert of Dallas — a couple of months to raise money and campaign as an alternative to the status quo candidate. Dewhurst, so confident in the primary that he has run a Rose Garden campaign, limiting his exposure to debates and forums that would put him on stage with the pack, would be in a defensive position in the runoff.
That would be worrisome for others, too. They are counting on the lieutenant governor to clear that spot on the escalator.
If Dewhurst remains in his current job, Comptroller Susan Combs, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples would have to shut down their talk of running for his job in 2014. Texas senators, who would elect one of their own to replace him for the remainder of his term, would have to bury their plans and ambitions about presiding over the next session.
And what of Dewhurst’s own plans? If he’s not in the Senate, does he jump into the next governor’s race? Austin’s speculation about the governor is about that same stalled and crowded political escalator. Will Gov. Rick Perry seek another term in 2014? He said he’s thinking about it. Would he run for president in 2016, assuming there’s not a Republican in the way? He hasn’t ruled it out.
Will the governor’s job be open? Wherever you find a question mark like that, you’ll find a political calculation. Attorney General Greg Abbott has his eye on the next race for governor. He’s no rival to Perry, but he hopes to follow him. Abbott has got $12 million in the bank — this is a guy without his name on the ballot right now, with no declared aspirations — and he appears to be comfortably aligned with Republican voters.
And this is important: He won’t have to run against the personally wealthy lieutenant governor, assuming Dewhurst is safely entrenched in Washington.
Unless, of course, Dewhurst fritters away what looked at one point like a sure thing — both for him and for everyone else on that escalator.