After months of lagging behind rival David Dewhurst in the Republican Senate runoff in Texas, Ted Cruz now enjoys a substantial lead, according to two polls released earlier this month — eight points in one poll and five points in the other. With early voting having begun a week ago, and Election Day being tomorrow, Cruz has caught momentum at the crucial moment.
“The Dewhurst camp is scrambling,” says an Austin Republican political insider. “They know full well that the polls are real.”
Dewhurst senior adviser Dave Carney dismisses the polls, saying the campaign’s internal numbers are “different than the public polls,” although he refuses to divulge any details. “We’re very confident,” Carney says. “Turnout’s great.”
Since the interview with Carney, a poll by Public Policy Polling was released Sunday night, showing Cruz’s lead over Dewhurst has now grown to ten points.
Turnout has been higher than anticipated, at least in the first half of early voting, confirms Mark P. Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University. However, until Election Day, there is no way to know for sure whether total turnout will be higher than it was for May’s primary (in which Dewhurst beat Cruz by 11 points), given the uncertainty over how many voters who are early-voting this time around did not do so two months ago.
Even if turnout is high, it’s no longer clear that it would mean a Dewhurst win, Jones notes. For most of the runoff, the conventional wisdom has been that low turnout would favor Cruz, who has a loyal, enthusiastic base, and that high turnout would favor Dewhurst, who tends to attract more casual voters. Jones says that’s no longer the case, although he thinks that a higher turnout still increases Dewhurst’s odds, not Cruz’s.
“Cruz has maintained virtually all of his support from May,” Jones remarks, “and he’s been able to peel off some of Dewhurst’s supporters as well.”
The Cruz campaign is optimistic. “We’re seeing growing momentum, ever since the Republican convention last month,” says Cruz campaign spokesman James Bernsen. Texan conservatives, he adds, “want a strong fighter who will stand up for conservative principles and defend the Constitution.”
But in recent weeks, Dewhurst, who has loaned his senate campaign nearly $25 million, giving him a significant spending advantage over Cruz, has increasingly gone negative. In ads and statements, his campaign has feverishly highlighted Cruz’s defense of Pennsylvania developer Robert Mericle, a key figure in a scandal involving juvenile-prison bribery; Cruz’s defense has been that he represented Mericle in a civil, not criminal, case.
A pro-Dewhurst super PAC is even running an ad that ties Cruz to a teen’s suicide, committed after the teen was released from juvenile prison after being sentenced there by one of the judges involved in the scandal. “Ted Cruz should be absolutely ashamed of himself. I don’t know how he can sleep at night,” says the teen’s mother, Sandy Fonzo, in the ad. Dewhurst reportedly refused to denounce the ad when asked about it.
“They are throwing the kitchen sink and the whole house to see what sticks,” says a Texas Republican strategist who backs Cruz. “The Dewhurst attacks have almost become ludicrous. Jumping the shark comes to mind.”
The ads may be backfiring. The same Republican insider quoted earlier says that people in Austin “are taken aback by the extent to which this [Dewhurst] campaign has gone extraordinarily toward the hardball direction.” He adds that, in the view of Austin insiders, “the one thing that Dewhurst had going into this race was . . . that people generally liked him. He’s a good guy. He’s a nice guy. This slash-and-burn campaign is harming that.”
Carney, arguing that Cruz “is running on his legal record,” defends the hard-hitting attacks, which also include suggestions that Cruz defended a Chinese company against an American one in court.
“It’s eye-opening,” Carney continues, “to see that a guy like Ted Cruz, who’s full-time campaigning in Texas, made $1.7 million dollars at his law firm. Why? Because he takes these kinds of cases.”
Meanwhile, in the last days before the election, Cruz has worked to shore up his tea-party base, conducting rallies with Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, and Rick Santorum. Dewhurst, for his part, worked to undermine the image of Cruz as the tea-party candidate by announcing the endorsement of Dan Patrick, the Texas state senator who founded the Tea Party caucus.
Some Texas tea-partiers have issued statements saying that Patrick should be not be viewed as speaking for the Tea Party on this endorsement. “Tea-partiers are very fired up for Ted Cruz,” says Ken Emanuelson, a tea-party activist from Dallas, who spoke at one of Cruz’s rallies.
Robin Lennon, president of the Kingwood Tea Party and another activist who spoke at a Cruz rally, agrees, but adds that Cruz’s supporters are making sure they don’t count their chickens too soon.
“We’re working,” she says of tea-partiers’ volunteer efforts, “as if he’s ten points behind.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.