There are few races in the country that better illustrate the GOP struggle between the traditional way of campaigning and the emergence of the tea party than the race to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas).
It is also part of a generational shift that has created a scramble for future power within the state party.
The March GOP primary has boiled down to two candidates who are drawing most of the attention: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz.
Many Republicans believe this is Dewhurst’s race to lose, even though few will say so with a great deal of confidence. His three strengths are name identification, money and the fact that few people are willing to publicly cross him because even if he does not win the Senate race, he will return to the state as lieutenant governor or as governor, should Rick Perry (R) be elected president.
Among Republican operatives in Austin, there are some who are privately with Cruz but remain reluctant to publicly join his campaign.
Cruz “has the heart,” one non-aligned Republican told Roll Call. “If the war is going to be won by who wants it more, it’s going to be Cruz.”
Adding to that perception is the fact that the Cruz campaign accuses Dewhurst of bypassing town halls and grass-roots events. Dewhurst’s campaign counters that notion, citing his current duties as lieutenant governor, which are all the more demanding with Perry running for president.
The belief among many party strategists is that the GOP contest will be decided in a May 22 runoff, which would be needed if no candidate gets 50 percent in the March 6 primary. Dewhurst is considered a shoo-in to make the runoff.
“Everybody is chasing after Dewhurst,” one Republican said.
That means in many regards the race now is to be the candidate who finishes second in the initial balloting and moves on to face Dewhurst in the runoff. However, this was the same thinking in the 2010 gubernatorial race, when it was considered a given that Hutchison would push Perry into a runoff. But Perry took 53 percent of the vote, eliminating the need for a second contest.
Cruz is best positioned to meet Dewhurst in the runoff, and the two campaigns are an exercise in contrasts.
Dewhurst is a known brand in Texas. He has patiently waited his turn to run for Senate or the governorship. He has served as lieutenant governor since 2003 and has been at the center of major policy decisions during his tenure. He has run statewide for four cycles and his soundbites frequent local newscasts.
He has already put some of his personal fortune to use in the campaign, writing a $2 million check to pad the $2.64 million he raised from individual donors in the first weeks of his campaign. He’s expected to spend more as needed down the stretch.
Cruz, on the other hand, has become a cause célèbre for tea party activists around the country. He’s picked up endorsements from Redstate.com’s Erick Erickson, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth and tea party darlings Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.).
However, Cruz does have establishment ties. His campaign has been playing up his recent appearance on the cover of National Review, and he took his teenage fixation on free-market policies with him to Princeton University and eventually Harvard Law School. He also clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and later served as one of his pallbearers.
John Drogin, Cruz’s campaign manager, is a former staffer to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Drogin is a known quantity in Texas circles, and his decision to sign on with Cruz gives the campaign credibility with Republicans in Washington, D.C., and Austin. Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is not getting involved publicly in the primary.
Electorally, however, Cruz is unproven and his name identification statewide is lagging. His only previous run for public office was a short stint as a Texas attorney general candidate, a race from which he withdrew when it became clear the sitting attorney general, Greg Abbott, would run for re-election. Cruz’s highest profile job to date, solicitor general, is an appointed position.
He raised about $1 million in the third quarter, which in many states is a healthy total. However, his funding pales in comparison to Dewhurst’s deep pockets and fundraising totals.
Texas is an expensive state with multiple big media markets where it can cost about $1 million to air ads statewide for a week.
Cruz plans to counter the television and money advantage with active grass-roots supporters.
“The way to defeat an air war is with a good ground game,” Cruz told Roll Call in early October.
Despite the focus on Cruz and Dewhurst, there are two other prominent Republicans in the primary race. Elizabeth Ames Jones currently holds the statewide elected position of Railroad Commissioner chairman, which is the government arm that regulates energy. She is considered to have a bright future in Texas politics, but the $235,000 she raised in the third quarter was dwarfed by the top two candidates’ money.
Also running for the Republican nod is former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. He is expected to do well in the Dallas area, and in his tenure as mayor he frequently appeared on local newscasts in a media market that extends to neighboring Fort Worth and the cities’ shared suburbs.
It has been difficult to be an ambitious Republican in Texas in the past 17 years. Only once since George W. Bush was elected governor in 1994 has there been an open-seat race for governor or Senate.
Democrats are expected to nominate retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. However, the general election is not expected to be competitive and whoever emerges from the May GOP runoff is all but certain to be the state’s next Senator.