The Associated Press has called the Texas Senate runoff for Ted Cruz — an ending that was by no means a certainty in recent weeks, despite Cruz’s popularity among conservatives.
Even after Cruz eked out a second-place finish in the May 29 primary and succeeded in keeping rival David Dewhurst beneath the 50 percent threshold he needed to avoid a runoff, it didn’t look like he had accomplished much beyond buying himself another few more weeks to campaign.
Dewhurst, after all, had beaten Cruz by eleven points in the primary. The late momentum Cruz had gathered in the race, thanks to endorsements from figures such as Sarah Palin, had boosted his support significantly, but not enough to put him close to Dewhurst. And it looked like it was Dewhurst who had all the advantages, beginning with money. (Dewhurst ultimately poured about $25 million of his own fortune into the race.) It was believed that voters who had voted for Tom Leppert and Craig James, the other two candidates in the first round of the primary, were likely to either vote for Dewhurst or stay home. Nor did there seem to be much danger that Dewhurst’s own voters would give Cruz another look and reconsider their votes.
Dewhurst had experience winning statewide races, and a wide range of political connections thanks to his long tenure as the state’s lieutenant governor. There were also accusations that the Dewhurst campaign was using that position (something his campaign denied) to push Texas insiders (such as business leaders) to not announce support for Cruz: “If you or your client have any legislative agenda whatsoever, there’s always fear of retribution. And so nobody can get out there and publicly support Ted,” one Texas lobbyist who supported Cruz told me.
So why did Cruz win? Well, one significant change: the percentage of tea-party voters he was attracting. A late May PPP poll, taken before the first round of the primary, showed that 38 percent of tea partiers backed Cruz, while 39 percent backed Dewhurst. But in PPP’s poll from this past weekend, that dynamic had changed significantly, with Cruz now getting 75 percent of tea partiers and Dewhurst winning only 22 percent.
In addition, Dewhurst’s attack ads may have backfired, making him a less likeable figure to voters and failing to tarnish Cruz’s reputation significantly. (Dewhurst’s negative ads in the primary may have also helped raise Cruz’s name ID.)
And while Dewhurst didn’t have any “oops” moments in the three debates he had with Cruz before the runoff, it was Cruz, who is a lawyer, who tended to shine on the debate stage, not Dewhurst.
The state convention, also held after the primary, proved to be another powerful point in the race, showcasing which candidate had won over the grassroots. The booing Rick Perry received when he touted Dewhurst, whom he had already endorsed, made it clear that grassroots conservatives, no matter how they felt toward Perry himself (I heard from some that they disagreed with Perry’s endorsement of Dewhurst, but still supported Perry generally), were not inclined to necessarily take his advice on whom to make the next Senate GOP nominee in Texas.
Cruz also got significant help from various conservative groups, including Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. The Dewhurst campaign tried to twist this into a negative, blasting Cruz as “TeDCruz” and saying he was supported by Washington insiders, not Texans. Based on tonight’s results, that argument didn’t resonate.
Cruz announced he was running back in January of last year. He’s had a long, tough slog since then. There were plenty of reasons to doubt that he would be able to pull off victory; considering how he came into this race — without the level of name ID, establishment connections, or financial resources that David Dewhurst possessed — and it’s fair to consider this an upset.
CORRECTION: I originally had posted that Dewhurst was accused of pushing politicians to not endorse Cruz; it should have been the Dewhurst campaign and that it was business leaders who were being pressured. Full piece with details here.