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Biggest Question in Texas: Can David Dewhurst Avoid a Runoff?

Will Weissert/Associated Press
Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz (above) is in a fierce battle against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Republican Senate primary today.

HOUSTON — Texas Republicans vote today to decide a contentious Senate primary, although late public polling suggests the contest could require a July 31 runoff to settle a battle that has pitted conservatives against each other.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is the favorite in a crowded primary field and is expected to finish first when the votes are counted tonight. But former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz was in second and holding Dewhurst below 50 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released Thursday that showed the lieutenant governor with a lead of 46 percent to 29 percent.

The battle between the two has been acrimonious and has left some voters here dissatisfied with their choices.

“You’re going to go into the poll to vote for Dewhurst or not to vote for Dewhurst,” said a Texas Republican insider unaffiliated with any of the candidates.

Texas’ unusual late spring primary has extended a campaign that is traditionally a quick affair held in early March. The television airwaves in recent weeks have become saturated with ads, often running back to back to back, while voters’ telephones have been ringing off the hook with robocalls. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, recorded a call for Cruz; Fox News personality and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did the same for Dewhurst.  

The state’s primaries were delayed after the decennial redistricting process encountered legal challenges. Turnout during early voting has been low, adding to the uncertainty. With nearly 20 media markets, elections in Texas tend to be low on retail politicking and high on television and radio advertising, which usually decides a race.

Although Dewhurst and Cruz are expected to finish one-two, voters have been turned off by the constant sniping between them and the mostly negative attack ads that are running targeting each of the candidates. Some Texas Republicans say this unhappiness offers former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert an outside shot at displacing Cruz and proceeding to a runoff. Leppert has generally been running third, but he was buoyed by the outcome of Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary.

In that contest, state Sen. Deb Fischer won after surging from third to first in the final weeks to upset frontrunner Jon Bruning and tea party favorite Don Stenberg. Nebraska Republicans turned to Fischer as an alternative to Bruning and Stenberg, who along with their supporters engaged in a bitter, negative campaign.

The Leppert campaign, well-funded and considered strong in his Dallas-Fort Worth home base, was “cautiously optimistic” heading into primary day.

“Leppert comes across as a grown-up, and he doesn’t seem angry,” the unaligned Texas GOP insider said, explaining the candidate’s appeal.

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