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Tea Party-Backed Cruz Wins Texas GOP Senate Race

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 1, 2012

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“This was the big enchilada for us,” Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, told RCP. To run a grassroots effort in such a big state signals “we can win anywhere and everywhere,” he said.

Indeed, the implications of Cruz’s victory will likely reach beyond this red state’s borders. Steinhauser says the win will energize Tea Party conservatives to be active in elections next year -- including the Virginia governor’s race -- and congressional legislative sessions. Steinhauser says activists in Tennessee and South Carolina are already talking about ways to oust prominent Sens. Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, respectively, and replace them with conservatives in the mold of Cruz. Conservative groups were already successful in defeating longtime moderate Republican Sen. Dick Lugar in Indiana this year.

“The spark of the Tea Party takeover . . . will inevitably carry on to propel fiscal conservative candidates like Jeff Flake in Arizona and Josh Mandel in Ohio to victory as well,” Amanda Shell, FreedomWorks’ campaigns coordinator, said in a statement after Cruz was declared the victor. 

“This race is going to have a demonstration effect,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “It has opened up the willingness of groups to play more forcefully in the electoral arena. It’s a demonstration of how you get to the right of the incumbent” or the equivalent of an incumbent.

The Tea Party was unable to do that in Utah this year, where longtime Sen. Orin Hatch recognized his vulnerabilities early on, organized a strong campaign operation and ran to the right. The Tea Party also wasn’t able push through a viable alternative to Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination. These scenarios, combined with heightened partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, brought the movement’s strength and longevity into serious question. Cruz won the nomination the same week Ohio Republican Rep. Steve LaTourrette announced his retirement, citing unbearable congressional brinksmanship.

But risky partisan bickering doesn’t deter Tea Party and other conservative groups that believe “the motivating factor, certainly for Republicans and independents, [is] people actually want real reform and serious spending reductions,” says Steinhauser. The group is still aiming for the “hostile takeover of the Republican Party.” And the Cruz victory is “an indicator of where we are heading in the future.”

Asking whether the Tea Party is alive or not is the wrong question, says Henson. “The question is: What is the Tea Party doing and in what context? The Tea Party has been incorporated into the dynamic of Republican Party politics.” For example, an affiliated group sponsored a debate in the Cruz-Dewhurst race. “It has become part and parcel of the GOP primary process,” says Henson, who notes that that “comes with assets and liabilities.” 

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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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