Over in the shadows of the blinding media spotlight cast on state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, stands Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, whose political future is also being shaped by the late-evening events on the Senate floor on June 25. The meltdown in the Senate that Dewhurst presided over thrust Davis into the national spotlight and, whatever her future plans, altered the trajectory of her political future. Gov. Rick Perry, ever alert to the opportunity to use a successful liberal Democrat as a foil for his own political ambitions, took his shrewd shot at using Davis’ turn center stage to edge his way back into the national spotlight.
For Dewhurst, June 25 and 26 were very bad days that came on the heels of a very bad couple of years. He currently enjoys the unenviable status of being the least popular of the major statewide Republican elected officials in Texas, according to an analysis of his approval numbers and standing in election match-ups generated with data from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.
Most critically for Dewhurst — still reeling from his star-crossed 2012 campaign for U.S. Senate — his approval numbers among conservative and Tea Party Republicans are not where they need to be if he remains serious about a successful re-election campaign. The problem lies in the fact that Dewhurst, at this point, is a relatively known and fixed quantity for Texas voters, and his stock is not riding high. Among all Texans, his net favorability (those who view him favorably minus those who view him unfavorably) is -8 after a decade in office — the lowest of the six Texas Republicans we tested, including U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and House Speaker Joe Straus (though it’s worth noting that Straus’ name recognition is very low). Among Republican voters, Dewhurst is at +12, which sounds good — until it’s compared with Abbott's +40, Cornyn's +44, Perry's +55 and, most stingingly, Cruz's +63. Dewhurst is +8 with those who consider themselves to be extremely conservative (compare this with Perry's +64) but, maybe most important, -1 with Tea Party Republicans.
Looking to his election prospects, our 2014 trial ballot had Dewhurst leading a pack including Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples; and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. But as we would expect at this early stage, most Republicans, 61 percent, have not yet formed an opinion. Dewhurst's 19 percent would almost appear respectable, but he's a three-term incumbent, and more to the point, previous polling suggests that he starts in a worse position than at similar points in his previous runs for office.
Compared with the last two races he ran, Dewhurst’s relative standing as a candidate has slipped. In October 2009, Dewhurst started with 26 percent against Abbott in a hypothetical lieutenant governor trial ballot, but ended up running unopposed, cruising to victory. In May 2011, looking ahead to his unsuccessful run for Senate, he started with 25 percent in a crowded field. Another member of that crowded field, Cruz, started at a measly 2 percent, but the difference lies in the fact that Cruz was unknown to most voters at the time. Dewhurst, as the above discussion indicates, is both known and not particularly well-liked by the electorate he hopes to court.
So while Team Dewhurst may enjoy the fact that he leads the field at this extremely early stage, his multiple challengers are taking on an incumbent with at best lukewarm support both with the overall public and the primary voters who will be the first arbiters of his political fate. Many factors have been in play in the events leading to the institutional breakdown in the Senate during the final hours of the first special session, and of course there is a very high probability that the Legislature will eventually pass the restrictive abortion bill that Dewhurst and social conservatives desire. But the vivid images of the breakdown in Republican hegemony will endure in GOP circles, and someone will likely have to pay a political cost. Dewhurst looks most likely to be the one left with the check — and it will probably be a big one, even if he didn’t order the steak.
Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.
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