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Can Cruz Pull Off Upset in Texas Senate Runoff?

Can Cruz Pull Off Upset in Texas Senate Runoff?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 31, 2012


A Republican U.S. Senate primary in Texas on Tuesday figures to be another widely watched test of the Tea Party vs. the establishment.

The runoff between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (at right in photo) and former Solicitor General Ted Cruz (left) carries echoes of themes at play in the 2010 midterms, when the grassroots insurgency propelled many underdogs to Congress. This race, however, takes place in 2012, when the strength and relevance of the Tea Party in congressional races is in question.

Tuesday’s results won’t provide clues about which party will control the upper chamber next year: Given the Lone Star State’s deep red roots, the GOP primary winner is expected to be Texas’ next senator. But observers say a victory by the Tea Party-backed Cruz could send a national message.

A Harvard Law School graduate and the son of a Cuban immigrant, Cruz appears poised for an upset win. A Public Policy Polling (D) survey finds him 10 points ahead and generating enthusiasm among conservatives, signaling a momentum shift in his favor. (In May, the poll found his opponent leading by double digits.) Though Dewhurst’s polling has him edging Cruz, assessing voter preferences is difficult in a summer election, when turnout is expected to be low. Many analysts have rated the contest a tossup.

Still, it wasn’t supposed to be this close. Dewhurst has been serving as lieutenant governor for nearly 10 years, and has a strong ties to key state party figures -- most prominently, Gov. Rick Perry, who this time last year was preparing to enter the GOP presidential race. Perry endorsed Dewhurst and appeared in television ads on his behalf, and some of his political operatives, including top Texas strategist Dave Carney, are working for Dewhurst’s campaign. The founder of an energy company, Dewhurst has reached into his own deep pockets to finance much of his bid. So far, he has donated $11 million to the race and has outspent Cruz, a political novice who started out with low name recognition.

Dewhurst beat Cruz by 10 points in the late-May four-way primary but failed to get more than 50 percent of the support, the threshold required to avoid a runoff. Cruz’s strategy wasn’t to win the primary, but to force the runoff, which would hopefully give him enough time to motivate the grassroots to turn out for him when high temperatures and late-summer doldrums might keep less enthusiastic voters at home.

Another part of Cruz’s strategy involved nationalizing the race and attracting prominent conservatives to boost his credentials and name recognition. Tea Party darling and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, along with South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a conservative stalwart, rallied 1,500 supporters in Houston over the weekend on Cruz’s behalf. Before the May primary, Palin voiced robo-calls for Cruz, calling him a trustworthy conservative who would change “the way Washington does businesses” and noting that the candidate’s father fled Cuba “seeking freedom.”

Cruz seems to have thoroughly studied the successful campaigns of conservative candidates in the 2010 cycle, says Austin-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, who served as retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s press secretary and is backing Cruz. “Ted really has the best qualities of each of them,” he says. “The constitutional scholar of [Utah Sen.] Mike Lee, the courage of DeMint, the compelling personal narrative of [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio, the libertarianism of [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul. . . . He’s sort of like the Terminator.”

Conservative groups have spent heavily on this race to contend with Dewhurst’s financial advantages. For example, Club for Growth spent $1.5 million on behalf of Cruz in the last week, and $5.5 million on independent expenditures throughout the campaign, most of it targeting Dewhurst. DeMint's super PAC, Senate Conservatives Action, also ran ads in the state for Cruz.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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