Tea Party-Backed Cruz Wins Texas GOP Senate Race

Tea Party-Backed Cruz Wins Texas GOP Senate Race

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 1, 2012

The Tea Party trumped the institution in Texas on Tuesday, propelling attorney Ted Cruz to an upset victory over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the nationally watched Republican primary for the Lone Star State's open U.S. Senate seat.

Cruz, a 41-year-old Cuban-American who is expected to win the general election in November (Texas hasn't elected a Democrat statewide since 1994), has pledged to bring his unbending conservatism to the upper chamber. The Tea Party’s upset win is significant given the widespread rumors of its demise. But Cruz’s victory signals that the grassroots movement has not just endured but is now woven into the fabric of the Republican Party, some observers say.

In the race to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Cruz defeated Dewhurst by an impressive 14 points in the runoff election for the GOP nomination.

Political observers have had their eyes on Cruz for some time, but beating a politically well-connected candidate with deep pockets in this big and expensive state at one time seemed improbable. Several factors led to Dewhurst’s downfall -- some beyond his control but many of them avoidable.

The Republican primary was originally supposed to take place in March, when Cruz’s name recognition was low and his campaign infrastructure less expansive. But a legal kerfuffle over the state’s redistricting process pushed the election to May. Dewhurst won that crowded competition by 11 points, but failed to garner above the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff. The second chance and extra time allowed Cruz, who had never before run for elected office, to introduce himself to more voters, motivate the grassroots, and attract support from big-name national figures such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.

Gov. Rick Perry put his weight behind Dewhurst in the early going and appeared in ads for him in the state. His top political adviser ran the Dewhurst campaign, which might have become too big for its own good. Analysts say Dewhurst underestimated Cruz and that negative advertising meant to define his little-known opponent may have backfired by actually introducing him to more voters. Most of the Republican state senators in Texas backed Dewhurst, who has run that body since becoming lieutenant governor in 2003. In addition to his expansive political ties, the wealthy former energy company executive was well financed. According to reports, he donated $19 million of his own fortune to this campaign.

Meanwhile, Cruz got busy cultivating the grassroots and tapping local conservative activists to organize on his behalf. Observers say Cruz made himself accessible by attending forums and events, exhibited strong message discipline and managed to make retail politics work in the large state. A late-summer primary in which the heat and other distractions might have discouraged the less enthused from voting may have benefited Cruz, who was joined by Palin and DeMint at a rally attended by more than 1,000 people last weekend.

Analysts, though, say Cruz could not have won on his own. He had significant financial and organizational support from conservative groups. Club for Growth spent over $5 million on the race, including $1.5 million in the final week. Much of that money went toward running negative ads against Dewhurst. The lieutenant governor outraised and outspent Cruz, but the insurgent had enough financial help from outside groups to stay more than competitive on the air and on the ground. FreedomWorks, one of the first groups to back Cruz over a year ago, put $700,000 towards this contest. The group tapped its 100,000 members in the state, put out 125,000 door hangers, made 1 million phone calls, and enlisted people from 40 different states to place calls on behalf of Cruz.

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

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