The pundits have this one all wrong.
Their persistent and ubiquitous storyline is that the Tea Party and the politicians who've embraced it are beating stodgy incumbents all over the country, winning an ideological battle against moderates whose conservative blades have been dulled by years of governing and compromising.
The argument travels through Indiana, where a longtime U.S. Senate incumbent who apparently didn’t visit home often enough lost to an insurgent candidate who wasn’t supposed to have a shot. It hopped to Nebraska, where two statewide officeholders beat the stuffing out of each other while a lesser-known candidate favored by insurgents emerged unscratched.
And Texas could make three. But if that story line were correct, the battle for the open U.S. Senate seat in Texas would have exposed a philosophical difference or two between former Solicitor General Ted Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. The candidates would be talking about their differences on the Tea Party's primary issues — national spending, debt, taxes and the economy. It would be the Tea Party in this corner against the mainline Republicans in that one. Nothing of the kind is happening here.
This isn’t about the Tea Party’s principles, but it definitely borrows from that movement’s rebellious nature. To steal someone else’s line: It's the disestablishment, stupid.
Voters who aren’t happy with the way things are going are throwing out people they blame for the mess, regardless of ideology. It sometimes looks like the Tea Party, but it’s not the same. Those early Tea Party rallies three years ago were all about economics; these races are drawing people from social to fiscal conservatives. That’s why “Washington” is a dirty word, and “lawyer” is a hex.
Other races on the Texas GOP’s runoff ballot echo the Senate race: Barry Smitherman vs. Greg Parker for Railroad Commission, Roger Williams vs. Wes Riddle in the 25th Congressional District race, Jeff Wentworth vs. Donna Campbell in a Central Texas race for state Senate. A couple of those — notably the Wentworth-Campbell duel — actually do set up as tests of the Tea Party’s strength. But not the top race.
Take a look at the two candidates. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won't name his favorite in the race but says he thinks Cruz and Dewhurst would vote the same way 99 percent of the time. Very simpatico, no? Columnist George Will, whose early blessings helped fill Cruz’s sails, ended the long campaign this week by saying either man would suit.
Dewhurst wisecracked the other day: “There isn’t that much difference between us, other than I’ve done all the things that Mr. Cruz says he wants to do.”
If this were a race between a Tea Party candidate and a moderate Republican, where do you think Gov. Rick Perry would land? This is the governor who was snarling at the federal government before that sort of ankle-biting was the de facto campaign mode for Republican politicians. And what about state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, who helped start the Tea Party caucus in the Legislature and whose voting record in the Senate makes him the closest thing in that body to a fringe Republican?
Both men are with Dewhurst. If they smelled a moderate, or thought there was some real danger of alienating the most active conservatives in their party, they’d be on the other side of the boat.
But this isn't about ideology. The Tea Party started with a set of principles — recall that Tea is short for Taxed Enough Already — and this isn’t really about the national debt.
If you want to be cute with words, it is about an old-fashioned tea party — the sort open only to members of the club.
Cruz is a fresh face, a talented debater and speaker, and a very smart Harvard-educated appellate lawyer. Hard-line conservatives don’t seem to have any quarrel with him. They have a lot of reasons to like him, and however this race ends up, he’s a politician to watch for the next few years. He’s got the backing of groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, the latter a self-described Tea Party front. The draw at the moment — when you pair him with Dewhurst — is one of style and of political culture: Angry and frustrated with politicians and officeholders? Here’s the chance to dump one. Send a rebel to Washington instead of someone tainted by 14 years of experience and compromise.
The establishment has lined up behind Dewhurst. A few have migrated to Cruz, but if you ask an incumbent Republican in Austin who they like in this primary, you're more likely to find a Dewhurst supporter. The insiders like him because he’s an insider and there’s no pressing ideological reason for the conservatives to ditch him, either.
For the establishment, this is an easy bet. If Dewhurst wins, he's going to be a senator. If he loses, he's going to be a lieutenant governor. Who wants to be on the wrong side of a senator? Worse, who wants their picture on the dart board in an incumbent lieutenant governor's office?
Self interest plays into it, too. Almost everyone in the state's Republican hierarchy is hatching career plans based on the eventual departures of either Dewhurst or Perry or both. Three statewide officeholders openly covet the job Dewhurst has now, and politicians on lower levels are looking at their jobs, and so on down the line. Others have Perry's post in mind, if and when he leaves. Say you were Attorney General Greg Abbott and the people close to you were talking about when — not if, but when — you'll run for governor. If Perry stays, should you challenge him? Wait where you are? Run for Dewhurst's job and wait there? Run against Dewhurst or hover until he leaves?
Senators would choose a Dewhurst replacement from within their own ranks. Some want to move up. Some think they could cut a better deal on committee assignments and such with a new presiding officer. Some just like the idea of stirring the pot every once in a while, and Dewhurst has been in charge for five legislative sessions. If he sticks around, the political ranks will shudder and wheeze with an epidemic of thwarted ambition.
A Cruz win would be a success for those who’d like to bloody the establishment’s noses, to tell the people in Washington and Austin that the public is angry and that there will be consequences. It could embolden challengers and prompt incumbents to grab their teddy bears and suck their thumbs.
A Dewhurst win would restore, for now, the regular order of things. The rest of the creatures on the food chain could continue to pursue their ambitions, undisturbed by the noise generated by the top of the ticket.
Conservative voters have been at this for a while, outside the view of the national pundits, consultants and others. Texas Republicans swept Democrats out of legislative offices by the bagful in the 2010 mid-term elections — a reaction in part to displeasure with the Obama administration. And the current primary results already indicate high turnover of both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature this year. It’s possible that freshman and sophomore representatives will outnumber their more experienced colleagues when the Texas House convenes in January.
In the Senate race, Dewhurst has wagered they are voting against the Democrats in Washington. Cruz bets they’re voting against the establishment. Ideology is in there somewhere. So is the question of why most people aren’t interested in coming to the polls at all. At the end of the day — the end of this day — the candidates and the rest of the political world hope they’ll get a clear answer to the most basic question in politics: What do the voters want?