Texas Republicans will decide tomorrow whether to repudiate an established leader by putting a newcomer backed by Sarah Palin on the road to Congress, a move that could further polarize debate over taxes and healthcare.
The primary runoff to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who is retiring, pits Ted Cruz, who would be Texas’s first Latino U.S. senator, against Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a longtime Austin insider. The winner may have a lock on the seat, as no Democrat has won a statewide vote since 1994. The race also highlights a widening intraparty rift.
“If Cruz wins, it will be because grassroots support was more powerful than money, keeping in mind that money from external groups helped him,” said Mark Jones, a politics professor at Rice University. “If Dewhurst wins, people will say he ran a poor campaign but had enough support from Perry and the establishment,” referring to Gov. Rick Perry.
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, joined Texas Tea Party leaders at a July 27 rally for Cruz, a Cuban-American lawyer from Houston who has said his opponent is too willing to compromise with political foes. Dewhurst, backed by elected state leaders such as Perry, has blasted Cruz, 41, as a tool of Washington insiders.
“Ted Cruz is not going to D.C. to make nice with the frou- frou, chi-chi cocktail crowd,” Palin said at the rally near Houston, wearing cowboy boots she said were a gift from Perry. “He is going to do the heavy lifting and rein in our out-of- control government. Fighters like Ted Cruz can lead the charge for us.”
A poll released late yesterday gave Cruz a 52 percent to 42 percent lead, up from a 5 percentage-point advantage in a similar automated telephone survey released about two weeks earlier. The July 28-29 poll of 665 likely runoff voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points, according to Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Dewhurst, 66, has poured millions of his own fortune into the campaign, loaning $19.2 million to the effort, according to Matt Hirsch, a spokesman. The U.S. Air Force veteran and former CIA employee made millions as a Houston entrepreneur before entering politics. As lieutenant governor, he has controlled the legislative agenda in the Republican-dominated state Senate for almost a decade.
“There are already serious divisions between Republican elites and a big part of their grassroots,” said Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “Just the fact that Cruz has made such a powerful run against Dewhurst, regardless of who wins, will have implications” for their party, he said.
Outside groups such as the Club for Growth in Washington have backed Cruz, a former state solicitor general. The club, which also supported Richard Mourdock’s successful senate primary bid in Indiana, has spent $5 million on advertising for Cruz, according to federal reports. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican whose political-action committee has invested almost $2 million in the campaign, has said Cruz would provide him with “conservative reinforcements” in Washington.
DeMint has supported Washington outsiders such as Mourdock, the Indiana treasurer who beat six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in May, to strengthen his push for spending cuts, repealing President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul and enforcing immigration laws.
DeMint’s PAC spurn’s “liberal” Republicans. Widening policy rifts and growing rancor in the nation’s Capitol prompted three-term Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, to declare her retirement this year.
$39.4 Million Race
Combined spending by the two campaigns reached $26.5 million through July 11, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington. It said outside groups have pumped in another $13.6 million.
“The amount of money that Cruz and Dewhurst have poured into this race dwarfs anything that we’ve seen in Texas” since the 1990s, when Republicans eclipsed Democrats as the state’s dominant party, said Rice’s Jones.
The son of a Cuban father who arrived in Austin in 1957 and an American mother who was the first in her family to attend college, Cruz graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He was Texas’s top appellate lawyer from 2003 to 2008 under Perry, the state’s longest-serving chief executive.
A resident of Houston, where he is a partner with Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Cruz began his campaign in January 2011, when he said very, very few voters knew his name in the second-largest U.S. state by population.
While almost 38 percent of Texas residents are Hispanic, 75 percent supported Democrats in 2010, according to Richard Murray, who teaches politics at the University of Houston.
Since taking over the state Senate in 2003, Dewhurst has pushed tax cuts for small businesses and homeowners. Last year, he helped win passage of a bill backed by Perry to require sonograms for pregnant women before getting an abortion.
He also supported a law forcing residents to show photo identification to obtain a ballot, which has been put on hold pending a legal challenge from the U.S. Justice Department.
While he was the only candidate holding statewide elected office heading into the party’s May 29 primary election, Dewhurst failed to win more than half the votes cast, picking up 45 percent in a field of nine candidates. That forced tomorrow’s runoff with Cruz, the second-place finisher with 34 percent.
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