In Texas, the Senate Republican primary is about to get hot — literally, with the candidate who can motivate voters to turn out in the Lone Star State’s scorching summer heat likely to come out on top in this bitter contest.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst should have the edge over former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R). But the establishment favorite is in trouble against the tea party darling, as even Dewhurst supporters wonder whether the Austin fixture can inspire voters to show up at the polls July 31, a day when the temperature averages almost 100 degrees in much of the state and most Texans are concentrating on their summer vacation, not on voting in a runoff election.
“Dewhurst’s problem is that he inspires no one — so he is going to have a harder time getting people to come out and vote for him,” said an Austin Republican operative who is still mulling how he will vote.
It is a sentiment echoed in almost every conversation about the race, even among those rooting for Dewhurst. No one can remember a statewide election taking place so late in the summer, and there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how that timing will affect ballot returns. Texas primaries usually occur in March, but they were pushed this year because of a disagreement over redistricting.
Dewhurst won the May 29 primary but failed to secure the more than 50 percent of the vote he needed to avoid a runoff.
Dewhurst strategists are banking on senior citizens pushing him over the finish line. This is a reliable voting bloc that has voted for Dewhurst several times and will not be discouraged by the unusual timing of the runoff or the summer heat, Dewhurst backers contend.
One Dewhurst supporter not affiliated with the campaign noted that registered voters older than 65 can mail in ballots. He suggested that Dewhurst should invest heavily in an absentee ballot program targeting seniors.
Dewhurst’s war chest is formidable. But most observers anticipate Cruz will have a strong second-quarter fundraising report. And groups such as the Club for Growth are positioned once again to invest heavily in television ads for Cruz. In fact, Cruz has received substantial support from Washington-based conservative activist groups.
Dewhurst is already back up on television — and Cruz and the club expected to go on the air after the July Fourth holiday. But Dewhurst supporters claim they are not concerned that Cruz could reach financial parity with the lieutenant governor.
“That’s not really a concern of ours,” a Dewhurst campaign source said.
Texas has about 20 individual media markets and is one of the most expensive states in the country in which to advertise effectively. Most campaigns are won on television with million-dollar-per-week buys, with radio a factor in some regions. On the surface, it seems an unlikely state to wage and win a grass-roots campaign. This environment should benefit Dewhurst.
But in the weeks of early voting and up to when the polls open July 31, television viewership will be down, attention will shift to the beginning of football season, and only the most motivated of supporters will venture outdoors during the day. If turnout is low, Texas could get a lot smaller.
Several sources pointed to Dewhurst’s primary win on the day after Memorial Day, also a time when voters unplug from politics. A Dewhurst staffer also argues that Cruz will not benefit from the protest votes for Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) on the state’s May 29 GOP presidential primary ballot. The Cruz campaign dismisses that argument.
Political observers expect Dewhurst to pick up votes from the primary’s third-place candidate, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert.
But Leppert has yet to endorse, and one source from his campaign said Dewhurst’s last-minute negative television advertising blitz against the former mayor was noticed and not appreciated.
“It’s incredibly hard for a candidate to endorse another candidate who … distorted his record,” the source said.
As for the big picture, the Dewhurst team frames the race as Texas
conservatives vs. national conservatives — an argument that could work in a state where voters are particularly proud of their state and exhibit a sense of loyalty.
Dewurst’s staff and consultants make up an “Ocean’s Eleven”-like team of Texas Republicans. Gov. Rick Perry is also an enthusiastic campaign supporter.
Consequently, it is a contest featuring much of the state’s Republican political brain trust against Cruz’s passionate coalition of local tea parties and national cadre of conservative activists, including GOP Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) and groups such as FreedomWorks. Once a potential liability for Cruz, his outside backing is now viewed as a positive.
Several unaligned Republican operatives point to a specific moment when the ground shifted. Crowds at the state GOP convention in early June booed Perry when he mentioned Dewhurst’s name during his address. The governor, who has endorsed Dewhurst, usually receives positive receptions from base conservatives. The reaction stunned many, but some in Dewhurst’s camp dismissed it as an isolated incident.
“The people who booed Perry are the people who show up to runoff elections,” said one unaligned strategist who, much like other Republicans, is still deciding on which candidate will get his vote.