Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican running for a U.S. Senate seat, faces a challenger from an improbable quarter -- a Tea Party-backed lawyer with Latino roots named Ted Cruz.
A political newcomer, the 41-year-old son of a Cuban immigrant if he wins would become the first Hispanic senator from Texas, where the Latino population rose 42 percent in the past decade. Polls showing gains by Cruz pushed Dewhurst to spend $11.8 million by May 9 in the race to replace retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican.
Dewhurst, 66, has won four straight Texas campaigns and has led in voter surveys since last year. The most-recent poll shows Dewhurst short of the margin he needs to avoid a July 31 runoff. Cruz has courted the same political forces that helped Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeat six-term Republican Senator Richard Lugar in a May 8 Senate primary.
“We’re going to see some record-breaking numbers in the Texas Senate race, which is a classic battle between the mainstream GOP and the Tea Party,” said Craig Holman, an analyst with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch in Washington.
The contest has fueled a multimillion-dollar advertising battle between outside groups backing either Dewhurst or Cruz, a former state solicitor general.
The Texas Conservatives Fund, a political action committee, has spent $1.7 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Much of that has gone into ads against Cruz.
Dewhurst wore the bull’s-eye in an almost $2 million ad campaign paid for by the Washington-based Club for Growth political action committee, according to a May 16 statement. The group described him as a “moderate” who would oppose “conservatives” in Washington.
Cruz, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University’s Law School, heads the Supreme Court practice in Houston for Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, a Philadelphia-based firm with 1,300 lawyers in offices worldwide. His campaign began as the U.S. Census Bureau reported a surge in the state’s Hispanic population to almost 9.5 million in 2010, out of 25.1 million residents.
Dewhurst began his political career in 1998, becoming the first Republican since Reconstruction to win the office of Texas Land Commissioner. He was first elected to his present post in 2002. A U.S. Air Force veteran and former Central Intelligence Agency employee, he started a business in the 1980s.
Stances on Issues
Dewhurst favors repealing President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul and imposing restrictions on civil litigation of the sort that have made lawsuits potentially more costly for losers and beefed up protection for businesses and professionals such as doctors, according to his campaign website. Dewhurst backs new limits on the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and greater development of oil and gas resources.
As Texas’s top appellate lawyer from 2003 to 2008, Cruz argued for the rights of gun owners and property holders, and fought abortion. He favors new limits on the Labor Relations agency and the EPA, greater energy development and repealing the health care law, according to his campaign website. Cruz also backs federal budget cuts, reducing corporate tax rates and repealing the Dodd-Frank banking overhaul.
While three-term Texas Governor Rick Perry is supporting Dewhurst, former governors have weighed in for both candidates. Mike Huckabee, of Arkansas, has sided with Dewhurst while Sarah Palin, Alaska’s one-time chief executive, has backed Cruz.
Spending ahead of the May 29 primary election has climbed to a record $25.5 million, making it the nation’s most expensive Senate race, according to Holman, at the nonprofit Public Citizen. Massachusetts was second, with $14.4 million spent by campaigns, he said.
Dewhurst led Cruz 40 percent to 31 percent among likely Republican primary voters in a University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey released May 21. The sample of 274 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.9 percentage points.
Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert was third with 17 percent among nine candidates. The primary winner will head into the November election in Texas, where Republicans have won every statewide contest since 1994. A candidate needs to win 50 percent plus one vote on May 29 to avoid a runoff.
“It’s going to be close, but I think Dewhurst is going to just miss it,” Mark Jones, who teaches politics at Rice University in Houston, said May 17 by telephone.
Dewhurst held a wider lead over Cruz, 38 percent to 26 percent, in a survey released April 25 by Public Policy Polling, an independent company in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dewhurst led by 29 percentage points in September, the pollster said.
In a two-candidate runoff, “the turnout would be dominated by the most conservative elements in the Republican Party,” Jones said. He said he thinks Dewhurst would prevail. The lieutenant governor won his last race in 2010 with 62 percent of the vote.
Dewhurst has raised $13.2 million for this campaign, including $9.2 million in personal loans, mostly since April 1, according to Matt Hirsch, a spokesman, and Federal Election Commission data. Filings show Cruz raised $5.8 million by May 9.
Cruz has been cultivating Tea Party voters on a local level since he began his campaign early last year, according to Rice’s Jones. “A lot of work has happened under the radar -- Tea Party meetings, shoe-leather politicking,” he said.
“The Republican primary electorate is very, very conservative,” said Jim Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin. “I don’t think anyone would confuse Dewhurst as a liberal, but he has not made his name associated with a resurgent, activated right wing.”
Cruz assails Dewhurst’s record in Texas, where the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate.
“Dewhurst has spent a career in public office, cutting the baby in half, working across the aisle to increase spending and taxes,” Cruz said in a May 17 telephone interview. He said the lieutenant governor has focused on him because he has attracted supporters that helped defeat Indiana’s Lugar and give a little-known candidate, state Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Senate primary win.
“They are terrified that conservatives are uniting behind our campaign,” Cruz said.
Dewhurst remains confident he can avoid a runoff, Hirsch, the campaign spokesman, said May 17 by telephone.
Standing on Record
“It does not make it any easier when you have outside forces spending $6 million to spread false and negative attacks,” Hirsch said, referring to groups that have bought ads to help Cruz. “David will stand on his conservative record and his tax cuts and his conservative legislation.”
Whatever the outcome of the campaign, Cruz will remain a contender for elective office, according to Henson of the Texas Politics Project.
“I think Cruz will almost certainly be back to run again,” should he lose this time, Henson said by telephone May 16. “Cruz combines the things that are fueling the surge of the right wing of the Republican Party,” he said.
“He is very conservative on social issues, he is very conservative fiscally, but he also has something of the intellectual thinker image,” Henson said. “He comes off as an intellectual firebrand.”