Republican Ted Cruz, a newcomer backed by Tea Party activists, threatened to make Texas the latest state where insurgents have upset established political leaders in U.S. congressional races.
Cruz, 41, forced three-term Republican Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, 66, into a head-to-head U.S. Senate primary campaign, winning 34 percent to Dewhurst’s 45 percent in voting that ended yesterday. To avoid a July 31 runoff, one candidate had to win a majority in the open primary.
“It underlines the ongoing process of integrating a newly mobilized far right in the Texas Republican Party,” Jim Henson, the Texas Politics project director at the University of Texas in Austin, said by telephone before results were known. “The party is sorting out how you maintain power as a party that dominates state government on one hand while mobilizing people who think that government is more often a threat.”
Both Cruz and Dewhurst attracted millions of dollars in campaign support, helping to make the election the nation’s most-expensive Senate race. The Club for Growth political action committee, a Washington-based group, spent almost $2 million just this month to help Cruz. It has backed Tea Party-supported candidates in states such as Indiana, where Treasurer Richard Mourdock upset six-term incumbent Republican Senator Richard Lugar in a May 8 primary.
The son of a Cuban immigrant, Cruz is seeking to be the first Hispanic U.S. senator from Texas. He won the support of Sarah Palin, the Tea Party favorite and the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president. She also backed Deb Fischer, a Nebraska state senator who beat better-known Republicans to win a Senate primary on May 15.
“This race is ground zero in the battle between conservatives and the moderate establishment,” Cruz said today in a statement. “The runoff will be decided by grassroots conservatives.”
Dewhurst, meanwhile, criticized Cruz for receiving backing from outsiders.
“I am confident that we will prevail over the Washington insiders funding my opponent,” Dewhurst said in a message on his campaign website.
Supported by Texas Governor Rick Perry, Dewhurst has served as lieutenant governor since 2003. A U.S. Air Force veteran and former Central Intelligence Agency employee turned businessman, he began his political career in 1998, becoming the first Republican since Reconstruction elected to the office of Texas Land Commissioner.
The July runoff winner still must defeat the winner of a runoff between Democrats Paul Sadler, a lawyer and former state representative, and Grady Yarbrough, a political newcomer from San Antonio in November. The candidates seek to replace retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican first elected in 1993.
No Democrat has prevailed in a statewide campaign in Texas since 1994. Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who conceded defeat yesterday, led a field of seven Republican also-rans, with 13 percent after 37 percent of the votes cast had been counted.
“Statewide runoffs are not all that common,” Mark Jones, who teaches politics at Rice University in Houston, said by telephone before yesterday’s voting.
“The mass media ads that both candidates have used might not work” in a runoff that may draw as few as 500,000 to cast ballots in late July, Jones said. The state’s almost 13.1 million registered voters don’t have to be a member of a party to participate in its primary election.
Dewhurst’s personal fortune may give him an advantage, Jones said. The lieutenant governor’s campaign said he has $9.9 million in outstanding loans to the effort -- more than the $6.2 million Cruz raised from all sources, including $470,000 in loans he made, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Through May 9, Dewhurst’s campaign spent $11.8 million, according to federal records, while Cruz went through $4.4 million. Including Leppert and the rest, the candidates pumped more than $25 million into the race, according to Craig Holman, an analyst at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch in Washington.
The Texas Conservatives Fund, a political action committee, put $1.7 million into supporting Dewhurst, federal records show. Much of that paid for ads against Cruz, a former state solicitor general.