Politics
4:37 pm
Mon June 11, 2012

With a Runoff, Dynamics Change in Senate Race

Even with nine candidates in the Republican primary to replace United States Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, just about everybody bet on Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to win outright.

Instead, he is in a runoff against Ted Cruz, the former state solicitor general, an energetic opponent who tapped into the anti-establishment vein in the Texas Republican Party. Dewhurst is still the front-runner, but he is no longer the inevitability presented throughout the spring.

And now the spotlight is brighter. Dewhurst and Cruz don’t have to compete for attention with a presidential race or contests in other states. National political reporters looking for things to cover are more likely than normal to be planning visits to the Texas barbecue trail. They — like the people they cover — are trying to connect the dots this election year, to figure out whether there is any theme or trend in the results.

Did six-term Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., lose his seat because of some conservative uprising, or did he just fall out of sync with the state that elected him? Was that a result of the Tea Party’s support of Richard Mourdock, or was it about some idea that the guy representing the state ought to have a house there?

What about Nebraska? Did Deb Fischer win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate because she was more conservative than the two statewide officeholders she beat? Or was it because those two front-runners knocked each other’s brains out and she was the only candidate still standing at the end?

Does the recall election in Wisconsin mean anything? Gov. Scott Walker faced down an effort by the state’s unions and Democrats to undo his 2010 election. Some see that as a reaffirmation of the conservative movement that put him in office.

Is the Texas race connected? Are there signs that the establishment is crumbling and that insurgent conservative partisans are taking over the Republican Party?

Maybe. The folks in the Cruz control room are hoping so, and you can certainly expect them to hype that storyline.

Cruz — who had never previously sought public office and got most of his experience as a lawyer in government service — got more advertising and organizing support, in terms of spending, from the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks than from his own campaign. If he can keep those and other outside groups interested through the July 31 runoff, he might have the resources to compete with Dewhurst.

History is on Dewhurst’s side. Statewide candidates who collect votes like he did — 44.6 percent in the first round — almost always win their runoffs in Texas elections.

But Dewhurst ran like an incumbent. He skipped most of the candidate forums around the state this year, opting instead to speak on his own and in his advertising. To someone devoting less than full attention, he appeared to be an officeholder seeking another term.

That storyline about the insurgents isn’t a great storyline for him. The Dewhurst camp will point to the nine candidates on the ballot, to the fact that three of them — Dewhurst, Cruz, and former Mayor Tom Leppert of Dallas — advertised heavily, and to the relative prominence of a fourth candidate, Craig James, who played professional football and worked as an ESPN analyst.

It’s worth noting that Cruz, Leppert and James snagged a combined 51 percent of the primary vote. This is even more interesting: In early voting, Dewhurst got 48 percent of the vote to Cruz’s 30 percent. On election day, Dewhurst’s advantage was skinny: He got 41.5 percent while Cruz got 38.1 percent. One more: The non-Dewhursts — Cruz, James and Leppert — got a combined 47.6 percent during the two weeks of early voting; on May 29, they got 54.4 percent. Put another way, Dewhurst tied his three chief rivals in early voting, but they clobbered him on Election Day.

Maybe the connecting dots that matter here don’t go through Indiana, Nebraska and Wisconsin. It’s worth looking at the timeline instead of the map. After delayed primary dates and months of campaigning and advertising, Texans finally got to vote. From the middle of May, when voting began, to May 29, Dewhurst’s numbers got worse. Cruz’s got markedly better.

Now they’re both in position to find out what another nine weeks will do.