When then-governor Rick Perry (R., Texas) faced an indictment for threatening to veto the budget of a Democratic district attorney who was arrested for drunk driving, Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) had his back.
“Unfortunately, there has been a sad history of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office engaging in politically motivated prosecutions, and this latest indictment of the governor is extremely questionable,” Cruz said last August. “Rick Perry is a friend, he’s a man of integrity — I am proud to stand with Rick Perry.”
“Texas will get Iowa-levels of attention,” one in-state GOP consultant says.
Losing Texas would be a huge embarrassment for the two favorite sons, Cruz and Perry. And they won’t be alone in fiercely contesting Texas, because the state represents a bigger delegate haul than the first four primary states combined — nearly 10 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination.
The risk is as great as the reward. Steve Munisteri, a former executive director of the Texas GOP who’s now advising Rand Paul, estimates that it costs $1.5 million a week to buy television ads in every media market in the state. To spend that money and lose could devastate a campaign, but a strong contender for the nomination can hardly concede the largest Republican state in the country.
Texas’s complicated process for awarding delegates presents an additional risk for Cruz. Seventy percent of the 155 delegates will be allocated based on the March 1 election results, following a winner-take-all by congressional district formula: If a candidate fails to earn more than 50 percent of the votes in a given congressional district, the delegates will be divided two-to-one between the first-place and second-place finishers. The remaining 30 percent will be awarded by a caucus at the state convention in May. “You might spend millions in the state, come in third and seemingly do well on paper, and come away with almost no delegates,” Munisteri says. If Cruz is weak, any number of candidates could gain significant support; if he is strong, he could win the lion’s share of the delegates.
Recent polling data tends to confirm Cruz’s front-runner status, though his lead is by no means prohibitive. The freshman senator led Governor Scott Walker (R., Wis.) by one point, 20 to 19, in a February survey conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. That was a sharp change from October of 2014, when Cruz led Walker 27 to 2. That said, the February poll came at a moment when Walker’s stock was on the rise among conservatives, and Cruz had not yet declared his candidacy. It showed Jeb Bush at 9 percent support, compared with Perry’s 8 percent.
Unaffiliated Texas Republican operatives and officials tend to agree that Cruz is the favorite. They split when asked who has the best chance to dethrone him, with some pointing to Paul and others to Walker.
A GOP operative allied with Cruz concedes that Walker could pose a significant threat to his chances, even in Texas. Not only does he have some affinity with the establishment wing of the party, Walker’s fights with the Wisconsin unions received a significant amount of attention and endeared him to the conservative grassroots. That executive experience gives Walker a wedge to drive between Cruz and the activists who have backed him as a senator.
“Walker has executed a budget as governor; Ted Cruz hasn’t,” the consultant says, while mulling the Wisconsin governor’s potential argument. “Walker has taken on the unions and won; Ted Cruz took on Obamacare and lost. [And] Walker won three times in a blue state.” What’s more, Walker has tapped Rick Wiley, a veteran Republican operative who lives in Austin, as his campaign-manager-in-waiting. He has also hired Susan Lilly, a prominent Texas fundraiser.
Cruz has dismissed the view that Republicans should nominate a governor by portraying executive experience as a criterion of convenience created by moderates in his party. “In this race, most of the establishment moderates are coming from the ranks of the governors,” he said in New Hampshire, per Bloomberg Politics. “And so suddenly, every time you turn on Fox News, there’s some D.C. graybeard saying, ‘It’s got to be a governor! Got to be a governor. Those are the only choices imaginable!’”
Unfortunately for Cruz, there’s at least one former governor who could be immune to that argument. Even at the height of news coverage of his indictment, Perry enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating in the state, according to a poll released by the Texas Lyceum. Sixty-one percent of Texans surveyed agreed that the state’s economy was better off than the rest of the country, a bank of goodwill that might give extra force to Perry’s argument that his performance as Texas governor augurs well for his potential as a president.
Perry is as confident as anyone. “If Rick Perry decides to run for president of the United States, he will compete and win in Texas,” says Jeff Miller, a senior adviser to the former governor.
Other campaigns are happy to play the underdog and raise expectations for the two Texans.
“It’s not a must-win for anyone else,” says Munisteri. “[Cruz is] by far the early front-runner and he is probably the single-most popular Republican in the state among base voters.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.