Politics & Policy

Can Cruz Pull It Off?

His opponent is the favorite, but turnout could prove critical.

If Ted Cruz is going to win the runoff for the Republican nomination for Texas’s open Senate seat, he needs a low turnout — or a way to change the momentum in the race.

Among Lone Star politicos, the consensus is that it will be hard for Cruz, the underdog in popular support and funds, to beat Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. In the primary election, Cruz succeeded in forcing Dewhurst into a runoff — but he also trailed Dewhurst by eleven points.

So far, the pace of the runoff race has proved sluggish. A June 22 debate offered a chance for the first true sparks to fly. But thanks partially to the debate’s timing (Friday night), it had little impact. The next — and likely last — debate will be held on Tuesday, July 17.

“Pretty much the status quo has been maintained, which I think is a good thing for Dewhurst,” says Mark P. Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University. “Cruz hasn’t been able to do anything to weaken support for Dewhurst.” Also, Dewhurst is still running ads — albeit not as many as he ran right before the election — while Cruz is almost “absent from paid media,” Jones comments.

Furthermore, supporters of the primary’s third-place finisher, former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, who garnered 13 percent of the vote, are considered likely to either not vote or back Dewhurst. A poll by Public Policy Polling in late May found that “Leppert voters prefer Dewhurst over Cruz by a 77–13 margin.” On the other hand, Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican strategist who supports Cruz, speculates that unless Leppert endorses Dewhurst — which he hasn’t done so far, perhaps because of the attacks the Dewhurst campaign made on him toward the end of the primary — his supporters may be more inclined to tune out than to pull the lever for Dewhurst.

The Cruz campaign remains optimistic, citing the enthusiasm for Cruz at the Texas GOP convention in June. Rick Perry was booed by some in the audience when he praised Dewhurst, whom he has endorsed.

Cruz’s endorsements, too, could help make his case to conservative voters: They include heavyweights ranging from Jim DeMint to Pat Toomey to Rand Paul. “And those are the guys who are fighting tooth and nail every day to limit the size of government, and to stop the bailouts and the debt-ceiling increases and the earmarks and the spending gimmicks,” says Cruz campaign manager John Drogin. “Ted’s going to go up there and fight with those guys. Dewhurst is going to go along to get along, and compromise.”

Furthermore, the final eleven-point gap between Cruz and Dewhurst doesn’t tell the full story. In the early voting, Cruz lagged by 18 points, but enthusiasm in the late stages allowed him to catch up. By the time the votes were counted, Dewhurst’s percentage of support was four points lower than it had been during early voting.

The Cruz campaign is resigned to the fact that it will almost certainly be outspent by Dewhurst. (Although financial support from groups like the Club for Growth — which spent $2.5 million in Cruz’s behalf in the primary — could affect the ratio.) “We know that we’re going to get outspent,” Drogin says, “but we know that our message goes further, and our dollars go further, and we will have the money we need to compete whenever we go up on air with TV and radio ads.”

Team Dewhurst, meanwhile, remains confident. “We’re sort of in new territory, in terms of experiencing summertime turnout,” Carney acknowledges. “We’re not going to let the outside groups try to dominate the race as they did at the end last time,” he adds.

The Dewhurst campaign is making the case that Dewhurst has significant accomplishments. “There’s this saying in Texas, ‘All hat and no cattle.’ This really reflects exactly what Ted offers — a lot of talk with no record to back it up,” Carney says. “Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and he agree on a lot of the issues, no question about it. But the difference is that David Dewhurst actually accomplished these things.”

The Dewhurst campaign also rejects the notion that Cruz has more tea-party appeal. “We split the tea-party vote in the primary,” Carney says.

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, predicts that Dewhurst will win. “But there is something to the [Cruz campaign’s idea] that a low turnout favors them,” he adds. He says it is unclear how low turnout will be, although it will almost certainly be lower than it was for the primary.

Mackowiak calls Cruz the “slight favorite” in the July 31 runoff election. “You almost couldn’t pick a worse day to vote in Texas,” Mackowiak says. “There was such low awareness of the May 29 date. There will be even less awareness of the July 31 date. You’re going to have very low turnout, and Ted’s base is more likely to vote.” Another factor that boosts Cruz is that he forced the runoff, Mackowiak says: “The invincibility has been pierced.”

Jillson thinks the runoff will eventually generate more excitement in the Lone Star State.

“Before early voting starts, you’ll see a media blitz on both sides,” he predicts. “No one can miss the fact that there’s an important election. Now whether they turn out in the heat of the summer remains to be seen.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...


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