Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst stood at a podium at the Intercontinental Hotel in Houston after Tuesday night’s primary and spoke to supporters as if he had scored a victory.
While he had indeed drawn more votes than his eight opponents in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Dewhurst fell more than 70,000 votes short of what he needed to avoid a runoff. While speaking like a winner, he made reference to the groups he had been saying for weeks were out to force him into this less-than-ideal outcome.
“You know this evening we’ve seen a clear message from the voters to the Washington insiders, special interests: Don’t mess with Texas,” Dewhurst said.
He was referring to a coalition of groups, including the Club for Growth, that had poured millions of dollars into the campaign of Ted Cruz, the former Texas solicitor general, who will face Dewhurst in a runoff on July 31. In its constant quest to move the Republican Party to the right, Dewhurst has become Club for Growth’s latest target and Cruz has become its rallying cry.
The Club for Growth was not shy this week about taking credit for Cruz’s strong finish. The conservative group, which played a pivotal role in the recent defeat of Indiana’s Richard Lugar and, in 2010, Bob Bennett of Utah, poured $2.5 million into the race and has set a goal of raising another $5 million to help Cruz in the runoff.
“I think you’re seeing a very similar narrative in Texas that you saw in Indiana, where you have an established moderate politician who has been in office for a very long time, challenged by a principled, free-market conservative,” said Barney Keller, communications director at the Club for Growth. “It’s kind of a microcosm of a larger debate that is playing out.”
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and a Tribune pollster, said the similarities to Indiana and Nebraska are largely superficial. The image of Dewhurst as a moderate who has been in office far too long is not nearly as deeply ingrained as it was with Lugar, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976.
“It’s a campaign frame more than it is a real trend,” Henson said. “The more you drill down, the less it is the same.”
When Cruz spoke to his supporters on Tuesday night, he challenged Dewhurst to five debates before the runoff.
“And if he wants to make the case to the people of Texas that he thinks I’m an amnesty-supporting, China-loving pinko liberal, then I encourage him to do so — in person,” Cruz said, referring to some of Dewhurst’s campaign ads.
Dewhurst loaned his campaign over $15 million before the primary and can tap his personal wealth to help finance his runoff effort if needed.
On top of that, two in-state Super-PACs invested in advertisements to boost Dewhurst. Rob Johnson, a former chief of staff for Dewhurst who is now in charge of Texas Conservatives Fund, said he would continue to raise money and air advertisements to make sure that voters know “Ted Cruz is a conservative phony.” Johnson raised a little under $3 million for the primary and predicted there would be plenty of paid messaging over the next two months.
“I don’t think money will be an issue for either side,” Johnson said. “Cruz has the D.C. insiders, and I’m sure they’ll pony up D.C. money for him again.”
For the two candidates, the runoff constitutes a lot of unknowns, politically speaking. Texas does not normally hold elections in the middle of the summer and only recently began requiring that they be held a full two months after a primary.
When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, announced in January 2011 that she would not seek a fourth term, Dewhurst was considered a formidable contender if he chose to run.
Many conservative activists are not enthusiastic about Dewhurst’s candidacy. Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, dismissed the state’s long-standing lieutenant governor as “DewCrist,” a reference to former Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010. The Club for Growth and other activists deemed Crist insufficiently conservative and they ultimately backed Marco Rubio, who won the seat.
Various groups went on the hunt for a Texas Rubio — a conservative who could compete against a front-runner with name recognition and millions in personal wealth at his disposal. Various factions coalesced behind Cruz, a rising political star based on his work defending Texas in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
By the time Dewhurst entered the race in July, Cruz already had endorsements from several groups who were gearing up to wage battle against Dewhurst.
On the campaign trial, Dewhurst has offered that his record is the same as that of Gov. Rick Perry, who drew strong interest for his conservative record when he launched his presidential campaign last year, only to see it collapse following poor debate performances.
Many of those same conservative activists who initially supported Perry’s White House bid have opted for Cruz, criticizing Dewhurst for caving during tough legislative battles.
Cathie Adams, a former Republican Party of Texas chairwoman, is shown in a recent ad for Cruz’s campaign saying, “Dewhurst appoints liberal Democrats.”
Sixteen months earlier, Adams had vouched for Dewhurst, telling The Associated Press he had “stayed true to his conservative ideals” and that complaints about his record were “unfounded.”
Adams said her earlier comments were meant as praise of the state’s Republican leadership, especially Perry. She said that Dewhurst’s role in their success is debatable.
“You can say the Speaker is supposed to be the driver of the House and the lieutenant governor in the Senate, but I think the person driving policy in Texas since Gov. Perry has been governor is Gov. Perry,” she said.
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, which regularly surveys voters before state primaries, said Dewhurst remains well-liked among Republicans, but Cruz’s supporters are more excited.
In the end, Dewhurst’s financial prowess might win the day, he said. Recent statewide Republican primary upsets have more often occurred in smaller states, where reaching voters costs less.
“Those were all cases in which a sort of anti-establishment candidate was able to win because their supporters were so much more passionate about them than the front-runner,” Jensen said. “I think that’s harder to replicate that in a state like Texas that’s so big."