Politics & Policy

Dewhurst’s Downhill Slide

Wendy Davis took a piece of his hide, former fans are grousing — and he’s fighting hard.

Only one person has ever lost an election to Ted Cruz, and he’s not doing so well right now. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who drew national attention as the most prominent foil to Wendy Davis’s pro-choice filibuster, currently faces a tough race for reelection against a slew of primary opponents. Almost a year ago, on July 31, 2012, Cruz — formerly the nearly anonymous Texas solicitor general — pulled off an improbable victory against the Governor Perry–endorsed Dewhurst and jump-started a high-profile career in the U.S. Senate. And as Cruz’s profile has risen, Dewhurst’s fortunes have flagged.

The situation started looking grim at the state Republican convention, which came shortly after Dewhurst and Cruz took the top two spots in the primary, advancing to a runoff. At the convention, which more than 10,000 people attended, Dewhurst had a relatively small presence, with only one booth set up. Cruz, on the other hand, had numerous booths, with tons of volunteers passing out so many thousands of stickers that they had to order more during the convention, according to one Texas GOP source. Cruz shook hands for hours. Dewhurst’s retail politicking wasn’t as aggressive — the source describes him as personable but not charismatic. And Cruz gave his speech before Dewhurst did, rousing the already enthusiastic crowd. There were Cruz placards on every seat and hundreds in the air during his speech. Dewhurst passed out placards, too, but during his speech there were about as many signs waving for his opponent as for him, according to eyewitness accounts. When Governor Rick Perry made a positive comment about Dewhurst, the crowd rumbled. Perry later joked that they were saying “Dew,” not “boo,” which didn’t help Dewhurst’s standing.

#ad#Naturally, losing to Cruz wasn’t pleasant for Dewhurst. But things went from bad to worse for him when the news broke, shortly after his defeat, that his former campaign manager, Kenneth Barfield, appeared to have stolen millions from the lieutenant governor’s campaign coffers over the previous five years. Dewhurst is suing him.

Then there was Wendy. Basically every Texas Republican politico I’ve spoken to about her filibuster has used the same phrase: When it comes to pointing fingers over the Tuesday-night fiasco, there’s “blame to go around.” But the buck stopped with Dewhurst, and his errors — forced or unforced — set the stage for Senator Wendy Davis’s political stardom and for the theatrics that ensued during the legislature’s second special session. Dewhurst has become the figurehead of Texas Republicans’ defeat that night.

Depending on your level of interest in parliamentary procedure, the mechanics behind the derailment of Davis’s filibuster are either fascinating or headache-inducing. Dewhurst’s office maintains that he made one fatal error that night: failing to communicate effectively with the Department of Public Safety about the need to clear protesters from the galleries. If Dewhurst had explained what he needed, then the DPS would have pushed out the pro-choice protesters earlier, Davis’s filibuster would have ended with enough time on the clock for a vote, and the Senate bill would have passed in the nick of time.

Others say that Dewhurst could have done more: He could have held a voice vote earlier in the night, he could have come down harder on the assistance Davis received putting on her back brace, and he even could have refused to give her the floor before the filibuster started. The consensus among Dewhurst’s detractors, though, is this: His pro-life bona fides are above reproach, but his leadership isn’t. He should have been stronger, they say, and he shouldn’t have let Democrats run all over him that night. As noted earlier, there’s blame to go around — the state house has drawn significant criticism for not voting on the bill earlier, which also could have prevented the filibuster — but at the moment, Dewhurst’s scalp is the closest at hand.

The vultures have already started to circle. Just two days after the filibuster, State senator Dan Patrick announced that he’ll challenge Dewhurst in the primary. This is perceived as an aggressive and unusual move because Patrick and Dewhurst are senate colleagues, and the legislature wasn’t finished with its work for the year. Primary challengers generally wait till they’re done legislating to go after the people they work with. Patrick didn’t, and that raised more than a few eyebrows. Further, Patrick used to be a vocal champion of Dewhurst’s. During the contest for the senatorial nomination, Patrick strongly defended the lieutenant governor on his radio show. Patrick evidently made a dramatic pivot in his attitude toward Dewhurst, as Morgan Smith details at the Texas Tribune. We’ll soon know whether others will follow suit. Land commissioner Jerry Patterson and agriculture commissioner Todd Staples announced before the filibuster that they’d challenge Dewhurst, too.

Sources close to Dewhurst say he’s gearing up for a serious campaign. And while they’re optimistic about his prospects, his office doesn’t take reelection for granted, and they’re investing a substantial political effort — and a not-as-substantial-as-was-once-possible financial effort. One person familiar with the lieutenant governor’s thinking says that Dewhurst regrets letting Cruz define him during the Senate primary, and that he plans to define himself more effectively this time around. And as soon as the second special session is over, Team Dewhurst aims to hit the ground running.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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