It was never going to be easy for Ted Cruz to force a runoff in the Texas Senate primary.
“This race is Ground Zero between the moderate establishment and the conservative tidal wave,” Cruz said Tuesday at a Houston polling site, according to the Houston Chronicle. “The stakes are high.”
“A runoff,” he added, “would be a tremendous victory.”
Last night, the former Texas solicitor general got his wish, winning a spot in the runoff and a direct showdown with Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who finished just short of the “ 50 percent plus one” threshold he needed to avoid a runoff.
Throughout the course of the campaign, Cruz faced serious hurdles, including Dewhurst’s higher name-recognition levels and superior connections to the political establishment. He also faced a financial gap: While Cruz has proved to be a stellar fundraiser, he does not have the means to lend millions to his campaign from his personal coffers as Dewhurst did, as seen in Federal Election Commission filings.
“David Dewhurst is a four-time statewide elected official, first as land commissioner in ’98 and then three times as lieutenant governor,” says Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “He is very well-known statewide. He’s got a fundraising network that goes across the state and a personal wealth north of $200 million, which he’s tapped into already.”
“It’s pretty difficult to introduce yourself to a state the size of Texas as a first-time candidate,” Jillson adds. In Indiana’s GOP primary, he notes, both candidates had won statewide office previously. “Mourdock was a statewide elected official whom people had seen on the ballot before and knew, so all he had to do was say, ‘I have the credentials that would allow you comfortably to replace Lugar with me. He’s been around too long. You know me. I’m a conservative.’”
Cruz’s runoff-eligible second-place finish last night came despite some tough negative ads from Dewhurst, including a radio ad in the last few days suggesting that Cruz, who is Hispanic, supported amnesty. Cruz denounced the ad, stressing that he did not support amnesty. His campaign blasted out a statement from prominent Republican (and eldest son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush) George P. Bush calling the Dewhurst ad an example of “the type of divisive racial politics used by President Obama and the Democrats.”
Cruz’s success in wooing the grassroots — something he did relentlessly, crisscrossing the state and showing up at straw polls — certainly boosted him. But his second-place finish is also due to other factors, including winning key endorsements and lucking out in the late timing of the election. The rise of Tom Leppert, the Dallas mayor who came in third, likely helped. So did the endorsement from the Club for Growth, and the organization’s decision to spend around $2 million on the race.
Endorsements proved significant. Sarah Palin’s endorsement, which was a booster for Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Deb Fischer in Nebraska, gave new energy to the Cruz candidacy. It also helped Cruz successfully combat a negative ad run by a pro-Dewhurst super PAC.
“When Cruz says he’s a conservative, he has Sarah Palin backing him up. And for a certain segment of the Republican-primary electorate here in Texas, that means something,” says Mark P. Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University. Referencing that pro-Dewhurst super PAC’s ad, which included the line “Ted Cruz, a conservative? You’ve got to be kidding,” Jones points out that Palin’s endorsement undercut that ad. “In a lot of the broadcasts we’ve had here, that’s running right after this Cruz ‘Fighter’ ad, where at the end Sarah Palin endorses him. The Palin endorsement is undermining the next ad, because if you’re a voter, you’re saying, ‘Sarah Palin just endorsed him. Okay, but here’s the Dewhurst attack ad saying that he’s not a conservative. So either the Dewhurst ad is wrong or Sarah Palin’s wrong. But both of them can’t be correct.’”
“In the end, among a lot of movement conservatives, the Palin ad really helped to counter or at least neutralize a lot of the Dewhurst attacks,” Jones says. “Sarah Palin was a much more valuable endorsement for Ted Cruz than Rick Perry was for David Dewhurst.”
Also likely beneficial to Cruz was Ron Paul’s endorsement. Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who supports Cruz but is unaffiliated with his campaign, speculates that that endorsement could have been the difference between Dewhurst in the high 40s “or Dewhurst at 52.”
Timing, too, worked to Cruz’s advantage. At one point, today’s primary was scheduled for March 6. If it had remained on that date, Mackowiak notes, there would likely have been higher turnout, since the presidential primary would not have been decided. That higher turnout would have likely hurt, not helped, Cruz. Furthermore, the delay gave Cruz more time to raise money and campaign. “What I think Cruz did best was he really looked at the insurgent victories that candidates had last cycle and he tried to emulate them, take the best parts of each of them, and adapt them to Texas.
“He’s worked like a dog,” Mackowiak continues, mentioning the miles logged and the fundraisers held. Cruz, he notes, also faced constant pessimism, with people telling him that he “can’t win, [voters] can’t elect someone who hasn’t run before, [he hasn’t] waited [his] turn, Dewhurst has so much money.”
Against all that, says Mackowiak, Cruz has “just kept the faith” and kept campaigning. If he wants to win the runoff in July, he’ll have to rely on that same strategy succeeding once again.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.