The establishment nearly always wins in Texas politics, so Jason Johnson, a longtime Republican consultant, said he thought it would be next to impossible to stop a powerful and wealthy lieutenant governor who would never run out of money or friends.
But when Johnson stumbled into a cab last week during the state Republican convention in Fort Worth, he knew his candidate for the U.S. Senate had crossed a legitimacy threshold he could not have envisioned even a few weeks ago.
The taxi driver, neither a native English speaker nor a political junkie, turned to Johnson and asked him to explain why so many of the passengers he was picking up outside the convention center were wearing the same red lapel sticker and talking about the same guy — Johnson’s client.
“Who is this Ted Cruz?” the cab driver said.
It’s the same question many Texas voters have been asking since Cruz, who has never held elective office, stopped Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst from sewing up the Republican senatorial nomination in a crowded primary late last month. Now the two are facing off in a runoff on July 31, and the notion that an unanointed, movement conservative could beat an Austin powerhouse is sending shockwaves through the state Capitol and beyond.
Whether it was a fluke or the beginning of a monumental upset will not be known for several weeks. In the meantime, observers are trying to figure out how Cruz and his “band of brothers,” as he calls his trusted campaign aides, have become the talk of Austin.
At the center is Johnson, 36, a scrappy East Texas native with a touch of mad genius. Johnson, the son of a coal mine equipment mechanic and a beautician, grew up in a single-wide trailer so dilapidated he could see the ground through a hole in the bathroom floor. Today, he works from an office he had painted black — he said it makes him think better — and by his own count he has won 59 of the 64 campaigns he has run.
Johnson said the Cruz campaign began on a shoestring budget and focused for months on building relationships among a far flung network of Tea Party activists who now make up the campaign’s most die-hard supporters. For months they relied on social media and candidate forums to spread their message, hording their campaign money for TV ads they knew they could not run until the final few weeks of the race.
Campaign manager John Drogin, a former aide to John Cornyn, recalls sleeping on friends' couches to save money when Cruz visited Washington, D.C.
By the time the convention rolled around last week, about 10 days after the May 29 primary, Cruz received a rock star reception. Dewhurst was booed by the same audience after he criticized Cruz.
“The narrative is he’s this firebrand Tea Party guy, and that fits,” Johnson said of his candidate. “But there’s a broad spectrum of support.”
There is still a long way to go. Dewhurst got more votes than Cruz in the primary, and many pundits say Dewhurst’s institutional support and vast fortune — estimated at $200 million or more — give him the edge.
Dewhurst, one of the most powerful elected leaders in Texas, not only has the endorsement of Gov. Rick Perry, he also hired Perry’s people — Dave Carney, his former campaign consultant, Mike Baselice, his longtime pollster, and Mark Miner, his former top spokesman. Dewhurst has also gotten a major assist from Perry’s former campaign manager, Rob Johnson (no relation to Jason Johnson), now running a well-financed Super PAC supporting the lieutenant governor.
In any other year, that kind of heavy artillery would probably do the trick. But this is not any other year, and the people backing Cruz say he is not any other candidate.
“I have never met a smarter person in my life,” said George Strake, a former state Republican party chairman and former secretary of state. “And Ted Cruz is a fighter down to his toes, to the tip of his hair.”
Cruz, 41, graduated with the highest possible honors from Harvard Law School, he clerked at the Supreme Court for former Chief Justice William Rehnquist and was a domestic policy adviser on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. He served as solicitor general of Texas from 2003 to 2008, acting as the chief attorney for the state before appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
He is the son of a Cuban immigrant, and he has been fascinated by the U.S. Constitution since he was young: He memorized it in high school, and in 1992 he wrote his college thesis on the Constitutional limits of federal power, the 9th and 10th amendments in particular — 18 years before Perry rode a wave of anti-Washington anger to an unprecedented third term as governor.
Conservative intellectuals are now in full swoon. They see in Cruz the makings of another Marco Rubio, the Florida senator said to be on Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential short list. And the Dewhurst-Cruz runoff has become the next stop on an establishment-defeating drive that has visited Republican primaries in Indiana, Nebraska and Utah in recent years.
Carney, the chief strategist for Dewhurst, scoffed at the comparisons. He portrayed Cruz as a “puppet” of the Washington groups that are backing him — like the conservative Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, which have helped defeat incumbents and establishment figures elsewhere. Club for Growth, which spent millions on pro-Cruz TV ads, is promising to spend $5 million more in the runoff.
“I think if you ask Texans today if you want another lawyer or someone with business experience, I think Texans would overwhelmingly say we have enough lawyers in Washington,” Carney said.
In a telephone interview, Cruz called the attack “ludicrous” and began ticking off a list of top conservative leaders in Texas who support him, including some backers of Perry.
Cruz is also firing back at the notion that he is the candidate kowtowing to special interest groups. He said the Dewhurst campaign is run by “political mercenaries” and supported by Austin lobbyists whose livelihoods depend on a good relationship with an elected official who helps shape every major piece of legislation at the state Capitol.
Cruz’s campaign said it has averaged 173 donations a day since the primary. The candidate said he will need the money to counter an onslaught of negative advertising.
“Mark my words,” Cruz said. “By the end of the runoff David Dewhurst will have spent another $10 million of his own money flooding the airwaves with false, nasty attack ads. It will make the last few weeks of the primary look mild by comparison.”