Every political consultant in Texas involved in the 37 primary runoffs at the end of the month is thinking about turnout.
Election Day is July 31, during that part of a Texas summer that makes people wonder why they moved here, or why their ancestors stayed. The Summer Olympics — a grand distraction from civics and the heat — will be underway.
The habitual voters will show: the people who vote for school boards and bonds and referenda and whatnot. At the microscopic level, they might be the 1 percent that really run the country. And perhaps the activists will turn out; the ballot is dotted with candidates who are depending on the constitutionalists, the fiscal hawks, the Tea Partiers, and the individualistic, anti-establishment conservatives who have taken over all of the talking points and some of the elections over the last three years.
It is a virtual slate card. A voter coming out for one insurgent candidate might help another one, and so on. And a top-of-the-ballot candidate trying to stake a claim to their support could benefit — and benefit from — local and regional candidates in down-ballot races.
Ted Cruz, running for U.S. Senate against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, hopes that crowd is behind him. So does Wes Riddle, who is running against former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams in the 25th Congressional District, and Donna Campbell, a Tea Party favorite trying to knock off state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio.
They’re tapping the same barrel of voter discontent.
“Did Cruz cause the Tea Party turnout, or did he just ride the crest of it in the first round?” said Bryan Eppstein, a Fort Worth consultant. “I’m inclined to think he was the beneficiary.”
Dewhurst, seeking federal office for the first time, fumbled his way into the role of an incumbent in a year when incumbency is repellant to many Republican voters. Largely on his own, but with some help from Cruz and others, he has become the face of the establishment in the race. His most prominent supporter, Gov. Rick Perry, might have warned him: Perry ran for re-election as governor in 2010 as a 10-year incumbent and managed to set up his main Republican Party opponent, Kay Bailey Hutchison, as the face of the Washington establishment.
It was a magic trick: The challenger looked like the incumbent, and the incumbent looked like the insurgent. More important, it worked. Perry easily beat her. He wrote a book about how the big ol’ federal government was squishing states like Texas and ran for president, hoping to be the small-government challenger to a big-government incumbent in the White House.
Unfortunately, that looked better on the drawing board than in the showroom. Once they got a close look at Perry, Republican voters weren’t interested.
But if they didn’t like the candidate, they seem to be holding firm to the idea. The anti-establishment thing worked in Texas, and it’s odd to find Dewhurst — who shares a horde of advisers and consultants with the governor — in the Hutchison seat instead of the Perry seat. The team in this 2012 campaign seems to have forgotten what worked in 2010. The nine-week runoff season could help them by breaking Cruz’s momentum, but the energy coming out of the May 29 primary was clearly against Dewhurst.
Cruz, who has never run before, is playing the role of rebel. It is a funny spot for a Harvard lawyer who clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court and gets much of his intellectual and political support from Washington and New York and his financial and grassroots aid from out-of-state groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.
Campbell and Riddle help Cruz as much as he helps them. Both had strong ground campaigns that elevated them past more experienced, better financed, and better-known candidates in the first round.
Eppstein is betting Republican voters are turning out in a show of force against President Obama and that their turnout numbers will remain strong through the runoffs and into the November election. “That sentiment is stronger than anything outside of local sheriff’s races in driving turnout in July,” he said. If turnout is strong, he said it will help candidates like Dewhurst. In a lower turnout election, the activists could have a proportionally louder voice.
“The better Ted Cruz does, the better Wes Riddle does, and vice-versa,” said Matt Mackowiak, an adviser for Riddle. “Ted’s base will get out. Wes’ will, too.”