Thirty years ago, it was said Texas Republicans were so few that they met in a phone booth. These days, a Roman amphitheater might be a more suitable venue. The colossal $45 million GOP U.S. Senate primary battle that culminated with a runoff Tuesday night between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Tea Party darling Ted Cruz turned Austin upside down. With much of the establishment lining up behind Dewhurst, Cruz won the runoff by 13 points, trouncing the powerful lieutenant governor who had the backing of Gov. Rick Perry and a large number of elected state Republicans.
Cruz’s victory has been cast by some in the media as a major win for the Tea Party, but this was not a race cut from the same cloth a as the Richard Mourdock victory over longtime U.S. Senator Dick Lugar in Indiana. There the former state treasurer and Tea Party favorite took down a moderate Republican. Cruz himself adopted that narrative in a Monday appearance on Fox News. “This race has been called ground zero in the national battle between the moderate establishment desperately clinging to power and the conservative tidal wave sweeping this country,” he said.
Tea party activists and their umbrella group FreedomWorks played an important role in Cruz’s victory. But in reality, there was not a dime’s worth of difference between Cruz and Dewhurst on the vast majority of issues, although they spent millions trying to persuade voters otherwise. Their philosophical similarities got lost in a tidal wave of money that funded countless ads from both sides and reduced the race to name-calling and worse.
Even in Austin, where most Republicans are out-of-town legislators, the ad wars raged as Dewhurst painted Cruz as a “Washington lawyer” who helped the Chinese steal from American business and who was being supported by “Washington insiders,” a euphemism for the conservative Club for Growth. Eager to prove his conservative chops, the lieutenant governor strode along the Texas border, dressed in a cowboy hat and jeans, calling out the feds for failing to protect Texas from illegal drugs, Asian immigrants and mayhem. He evoked his military service and his time in the CIA. Plus, he rolled out an impressive list of state senators, among them some of Texas’ most conservative politicians, as evidence of his credentials — of course, as their powerful presiding officer, they were beholden to him.
On the last day of campaigning, Dewhurst opted for a morning visit to an Austin Chick-fil-A drive-in for a breakfast sandwich and a photo op, all mixed in with a message about his opposition to gay marriage. It came hot on the heels of Cruz’s own Chick-fil-A moment over the weekend — Sarah Palin had left a Cruz rally near Houston and snapped up some chicken sandwiches, then tweeted a photograph of herself and husband Todd with the Chick-fil-A bags in hand. Cruz had Palin and U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, while Dewhurst had former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on his side.
As veteran political reporter Ross Ramsey wrote earlier this week in the Texas Tribune, the pundits had it wrong. This was not a battle between a moderate and a conservative, a la Mourdock and Lugar, but a fight between the establishment and a newcomer who in all likelihood, according to U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, would both vote the same way in the Senate. In ads, Cruz had called Dewhurst a moderate and a “big spending, tax raising” politician, but the lieutenant governor had further proof of his conservative stripes in the form of an endorsement and campaign trail help from Gov. Perry.
Perry, who climbed on the Tea Party train early, not only gave his support to Dewhurst, but also some of his political infrastructure, including consultant Dave Carney. The governor “is now the big loser,” wrote Paul Burka, longtime political analyst at Texas Monthly. “I think his political career may be over.” The counting of the votes had not yet been completed when Republican Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson announced he would run for lieutenant governor in 2014 whether Dewhurst, who retains the powerful post, runs or not. The party solidarity that had helped bring Republicans to power in Texas has cracked.
“Texas Republicans dominate their state as thoroughly and completely as any party in the nation,” Cal Jillson, political scientist at Southern Methodist University says. “Republicans hold all 29 state wide elective offices and two-to-one majorities over the Democrats in the congressional delegation and both houses of the state legislature.” But Jillson adds there is something “surreal” about the Republican dominance. “The Republicans are essentially an Anglo party in a state in which the Anglo share of the population is shrinking and in which minorities already constitute a majority.”
Cruz has been cast as another Marco Rubio. Like the Florida senator, he is Cuban-American, a conservative with great communication skills, young – just 41 – and an effective campaigner. Like Rubio, it has been suggested he could be a potential draw to Hispanic voters, a notion that has yet to be tested, given the fact that the vast majority of Hispanics in Texas vote for Democrats. But among his early supporters was a young man intent on bringing Hispanic voters into the GOP fold — George P. Bush, grandson to the elder former President, nephew to the younger, and co-founder of Hispanic Republicans of Texas. Bush’s backing of Cruz is evidence, Burka says, that “he has inherited good political antennae” and that he has fast-tracked his own statewide political ambitions.
Cruz’s victory came on a day when the Democrats announced another up and coming Texas Hispanic star, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, will be a keynote speaker at their national convention. So far, in Texas, neither party has produced a winning statewide top-of-the ticket Hispanic. However, given the current Republican dominance in Texas, Cruz’s victory is likely to lead to the GOP reaching that point first this fall. Meanwhile, the Lone Star GOP Establishment is cracking.