Ted Cruz’s Tea Party triumph is rocking the Texas Republican establishment, as the newcomer’s defeat of Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in the U.S. Senate primary runoff signals rough times for Governor Rick Perry.
Cruz, a former state solicitor general from Houston who has never held elected office, buried Perry-backed Dewhurst, 57 percent to 43 percent, in the second-largest U.S. state by population. Dewhurst drew on his personal wealth to attack his rival, while Cruz had help from Washington-based groups that have backed other successful Tea Party-supported insurgents.
The July 31 loss by Dewhurst, 66, as well as several lower-level Republicans may create strains for party leaders in Austin when lawmakers return in January. Perry, the longest-serving U.S. governor, quit the presidential primaries after failing to win early votes. His stumbles hurt his standing with Texans, and he faces an intraparty budget fight over school funding.
“This has moved the starting point for the 2013 session to the right,” said Mark Jones, the political science department head at Rice University in Houston. “Taxes are off the table; don’t even try.”
Both Perry, 65, and Dewhurst, who presides over the state Senate, have terms that end in about two years. Dewhurst, who’ll turn 69 in August 2014, may not seek re-election, Jones said.
“Perry’s prospects already were substantially reduced by his failed presidential run,” Jones said. The governor’s inability to deliver a win for Dewhurst “lowers them a little bit more.”
Perry, who took office in 2000, has said he might seek another term in 2014, and has left open the possibility of a second presidential bid in 2016.
Before the voting, Perry, who had never lost an election prior to venturing into national politics, indicated he had no intention of stepping down.
“I’m not riding into the sunset,” the governor said at the state Republican Party convention in June. His endorsement of Dewhurst drew loud boos at the event.
Cruz, 41, won support from national figures, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee. A Public Policy Polling survey of likely voters July 28-29 showed that just 16 percent said they would be inclined to support a Senate candidate backed by Perry, compared with 31 percent who said they would favor one endorsed by Palin.
The governor has reached out to Tea Party groups, “trying to straddle both worlds,” Jones said. He may face trouble from local activists who won’t forgive his backing Dewhurst.
“Ted is a force to be reckoned with: an excellent candidate and a great conservative communicator,” Perry said in a statement after the results were known. “I call on all conservative Texans to rally behind Ted Cruz in November so we can remake the U.S. Senate in the image of Texas for the good of all Americans.”
Dewhurst also threw his support to Cruz.
The influence of the runoff vote also may color state legislative affairs, according to Cal Jillson, a politics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“I think other elected officials in the state will be running further to the right” rather than risk criticism from emboldened Tea Party groups, Jillson said. “The insurgent wing is now taking a dominant position.”
Just 8.5 percent of the state’s almost 13.1 million registered voters cast ballots in the Republican runoff for the chance to fill the Senate seat held by Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is retiring. By contrast, 1.8 percent voted for a Democrat, a race won by former state representative Paul Sadler.
Several Republican incumbents in the state House and Senate lost runoff votes to Tea Party-backed opponents. Among the losers were Representatives Chuck Hopson and Sid Miller, who lead committees, and Senator Jeff Wentworth, chairman of his chamber’s Open Government panel.
No Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994.
Cruz, who started his campaign barely registering in voter surveys early last year, combined local politicking with support from Tea Party groups and $8.36 million in spending by organizations such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, both based in Washington. Their PAC money, which paid for ads attacking Dewhurst, helped offset the $19.2 million of his own fortune that Dewhurst loaned to his campaign.
Including spending for Dewhurst and other candidates, outsiders pumped about $14.6 million into the race, at least three times more than any other Senate primary, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group in Washington. The next highest, Indiana, saw $4.89 million poured into the May election in which Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party-backed state treasurer, toppled six-term incumbent Republican Richard Lugar.
“Even when the odds against him were long, Cruz was willing to put in the 70- and 80-hour weeks, traveling to Nacogdoches, Big Spring, Lufkin, meeting with 100 or 50 people in some dingy VFW hall,” Jones said, referring to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Dewhurst left the door wide open by refusing to attend those events.”
Cruz praised his volunteers in his victory speech at a Houston hotel, including one supporter who he said had made 8,000 telephone calls on his behalf.
FreedomWorks, a political action committee started by former Texas Republican U.S. Representative Dick Armey, brought in people to staff telephone banks and organized neighborhood events, Ryan Seth Hecker, the Washington-based organization’s chief operating officer, said at the Cruz victory party.
“We printed 30,000 yard signs,” Hecker said. “We made more than 1 million phone calls.”
“This was a bottom-up, grassroots campaign.”