The news that Texans for Lawsuit Reform had changed its endorsement from David Dewhurst to Dan Patrick in the Republican primary race for lieutenant governor conveyed another setback for Dewhurst, the incumbent, and more importantly, another indication of the shifting identity and internal politics of the Texas GOP.
Dewhurst’s predicament — abandoned first by most Republican primary voters and then by one of the bellwethers of the Texas big business establishment — reveals how the Republican Party has changed since he first became lieutenant governor in 2003.
Dewhurst was the perfect combination of the elements that went into the standard Texas Republican circa the turn of the millennium: a wealthy Houston businessman with a national security background — the CIA, no less. It worked. After defeating Democrat John Sharp in what now seems like a close race in 2002, Dewhurst scored relatively easy electoral victories in 2006 and 2010 on Republican slates that embarrassed a series of largely hapless Democratic candidates.
Yet his easy victory in 2010 on a ticket led by the strongest showing of Gov. Rick Perry’s electoral career concealed the fact that Dewhurst was vulnerable to a new wave of candidates more in tune with an invigorated conservative wing of the GOP.
Data gleaned from four University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls show this mutation of the GOP in its contrasting assessments of Dewhurst, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Perry. We measured the electorate’s attitudes towards Dewhurst and Cruz, and Perry’s approval numbers, in May 2012, February 2013, June 2013 and February 2014, a period that stretches from the delayed party runoffs of 2012 to the present, capturing the changing fortunes of all three men.
At the start, Dewhurst, widely considered the favorite to win the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, was in a strong position: 50 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of Dewhurst — an 11-percentage-point advantage over Cruz. Dewhurst held a similar 11-point advantage among conservatives but, even at that early stage, only a 4-point advantage among Tea Party Republicans, 55 percent of whom held a favorable impression of Dewhurst. Early in the race, there was evidence that insider (including GOP elites) assumptions of Dewhurst’s incumbent advantage were not evident in the GOP primary electorate.
In an upset that reverberated through both the state and national GOP, Cruz prevailed, and Dewhurst went into a tailspin. Over the next two polls in the series (February and June of 2103), roughly 33 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of the lieutenant governor — a 17 point decline. Among conservatives, his favorable numbers fell 20 points, and among Tea Party Republicans, they fell 25 percentage points.
Dewhurst has done much in the intervening period to recover his lost standing, at least in public opinion. In the February 2014 survey, he polled slightly better with Republicans than he did in May 2012 (53 percent registered a favorable opinion), and almost recovered with conservatives (49 percent had a favorable opinion). Yet Dewhurst remained underwater with Tea Party Republicans when compared with his starting point: In May 2012, 55 percent had a favorable view of him, but today, only 42 percent retain this view. His net favorability among Tea Party Republicans (those holding a favorable opinion minus those holding an unfavorable opinion) was only plus 21, a big increase from the net favorability of zero he averaged over the previous two polls after his loss to Cruz, but nowhere near the plus 35 he enjoyed in May of 2012.
His numbers come into stark relief against those of conservative GOP leaders who have proven to be Dewhurst’s chief antagonists — Cruz and Patrick — and Perry, the Rosetta Stone of contemporary Texas politics.
Dewhurst’s current difficulties with Patrick were evident in that February 2014 poll: Patrick was viewed positively by 47 percent of Tea Party Republicans — only 5 points higher than Dewhurst — but had a net favorability of plus 37, a 16-point gap.
A more telling comparison involves the divergent fates of Dewhurst, Cruz and Perry. Cruz has harnessed the Tea Party’s influence to an unrivaled extent — much imitated, but not quite replicated. While his favorability among Republicans increased from 39 percent to 73 percent over the time series, his favorability among Tea Party Republicans increased from 51 to 86 percent. That 86 percent carries an astonishing net favorability of plus 82. As familiarity with Dewhurst seems to have bred, if not contempt, at least skepticism among GOP voters, the more they got to know Cruz, the more they loved him.
Perry, who successfully rode the first crest of the Tea Party wave back in 2009 and 2010, has also benefited mightily from their rise, but more so in his ability to merge his politics with theirs. Perry’s job approval among Republicans rose slightly over time, from 50 percent in May 2012 to 59 percent in February 2014. He did even better among conservatives, jumping from 61 percent to 70 percent approval. Among Tea Party Republicans, Perry started at 58 percent approval in May 2012, jumped into the mid-70s in the February and June 2013 surveys (just as Dewhurst was at his nadir with that same group), and settled back down to 68 percent approval in February. Perry has also suffered, if less than Dewhurst, in comparison to Cruz.
As Dewhurst pursues Patrick in the GOP primary runoff for lieutenant governor, the combination of Cruz’s ascendance and Perry’s departure from the governorship amid a repositioning for another presidential run have also worked to Dewhurst’s disadvantage. Perry’s shift in focus has exposed the degree to which Dewhurst’s political success transpired in Perry’s wake, especially as Perry responded astutely and without hesitation to the activation of the most conservative wing of the party after the 2008 national election.
There is, as always, a fascinating human dimension to the arc of Dewhurst’s career and to his predicament. But even as Dewhurst launches a round of counterpunches — including a somewhat belated attack on Patrick’s authenticity — the most consequential outcome of this race will be its effect on the internal balance of power in the Republican Party, especially when the winners get back to the business of governing. After all, the consequences of an election don’t become clear until the process begins to work again under new management.
Until recently, the presence of the business establishment at Dewhurst’s side — the trade groups, the lobby, and the private GOP donor pool (including, in this case, his own bank account) — concealed his weakness as a candidate. TLR’s public abandonment of Dewhurst marks a recognition not just of the long odds against him, but of the success of the forces that are challenging business’ long-uncontested hegemony in the Texas GOP, and the recognition of new and important stakeholders in the political process.