What has become a battle was supposed to be more of a coronation for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who has run the Texas Senate for the last decade. He has a vast personal fortune to spend on the race. And he was the favorite of just about every establishment Republican in the state, including Gov. Rick Perry.
“David’s the one candidate best prepared to make conservative change happen in Washington,” Perry said in an ad for Dewhurst. “Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News
Even Dewhurst's opponent, Ted Cruz, the former state solicitor general, will tell you that when he entered the race, it was Dewhurst and the eight other guys.
"You know, when we started this campaign a year and a half ago, there wasn't anybody in the state that thought I had a prayer,” Cruz said. “I was at 2 percent in the polls, and the margin of error was 3 percent."
And many believe that if the election had been held in March — Texas’ traditional primary month — Dewhurst would have easily gotten the 50 percent needed to win the GOP primary without a runoff. But thanks to a lawsuit over legislative redistricting, the primary was pushed back to late May. Republican strategist Ted Delisi said that changed the race.
“I think there was always a potential for a competitive race,” Delisi said. “But it has become very competitive. And the reason for that is, the non-Dewhurst candidates, and in this case Ted Cruz, have had the time to make their case."
There was time for Cruz to meet more voters and time to build his name recognition across the state. Will Lutz, former editor of a prominent Texas conservative newsletter, said Cruz used his time doing the equivalent of walking door to door to meet voters.
“What Ted Cruz did is for the past year and a half at least, he’s been going to every conservative Republican group that would listen to him,” Lutz said. “He’s got a stump speech that those audiences find attractive.”
So bit by bit, Cruz moved up in the polls. In a crowded primary, he was able to solidify the anti-Dewhurst vote. Then came a late endorsement from Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin. And finally, he got a couple million dollars in ads from the Washington, D.C.-based conservative group Club for Growth.
"Dewhurst backed wasteful earmarks and pushed for new wage taxes and a statewide property tax,” a Cruz ad says. “Big-spending, tax-raising David Dewhurst: wrong for Texas."
That ad support, coupled with Cruz's emphasis on reaching out to conservative bloggers across the country, gave him national attention. Lutz said that dramatically affected Cruz's fundraising efforts.
“You will see people from all over the country giving money to Ted Cruz,” Lutz said. “He has made a splash in national conservative circles. Being on the cover of National Review magazine, which is a conservative commentary publication, is a real coup for somebody running for office in one state."
All that — the money, the endorsements and the extra time to campaign — led to a second-place finish in the May primary. He only got 34 percent of the vote, but his supporters are mostly from the grassroots/activist/Tea Party branch of the GOP. And neither rain nor sleet nor July Texas heat will keep those voters from the polls. The Dewhurst campaign has failed to generate the same emotional fire, which leaves him hoping his supporters won’t skip the runoff.
“We have polled and polled, and there are substantially more David Dewhurst voters in Texas that we've been able to identify then Ted Cruz voters,” Dewhurst said. “But again, it's a question of turnout."
Recent polls show the race is a dead heat, which has led to a bloody July on TV. The Club for Growth has hammered away at Dewhurst, calling him a moderate who wants to raise taxes. Dewhurst paints Cruz as a D.C. insider, a corrupt lawyer and someone who can only talk about what he'd do in office, whereas Dewhurst has a record of already doing it.
“I have cut spending,” Dewhurst said. “I have cut taxes. I have balanced budgets. I have fought against 'Obamacare.' I have fought to secure our borders. I am the only literal fighter. Being in the debate club is not a fighter.”
Cruz is ending his campaign by doubling down on his Tea Party support. Tonight in The Woodlands, Palin and the Tea Party Express are hosting a rally and fundraiser on his behalf.