I was in Dallas over the weekend speaking at one of the rallies Glenn Beck was attending as part of his “Restoring Love” week. Preceding me on the podium was another speaker who got a lot more cheers: Ted Cruz, who is now the front-runner for the GOP U.S. Senate primary being held today. Should he win today, as most recent polls indicate he will, it will signal that the Tea Party can beat the establishment even when it is vastly outspent. As the Washington Post put it: “A Cruz victory would suggest that Republican voters aren’t just rejecting inadequately conservative candidates and longtime incumbents. The sufficiently conservative who are tied to the establishment — a word becoming more and more toxic in politics — are also at risk.”
Cruz’s opponent is Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a pillar of the Texas GOP establishment. While he has talked a conservative game, he has often, as presiding officer of the state senate, blocked reform measures behind the scenes. He has been endorsed by Governor Rick Perry and almost every other statewide officeholder, along with 18 of the 19 Republicans in the state senate.
Dewhurst has supplemented that support by loaning or giving his campaign a staggering $25 million from his personal fortune, swamping Cruz’s spending on TV and in mailboxes. Much of that money has gone into a relentlessly negative series of ads against Cruz. At first, the ads accused Cruz of consorting with the Communist Chinese through his legal clients and being vaguely unpatriotic for doing so. The latest one features a mother of a Pennsylvania woman whose son committed suicide in a judicial-detention facility scandal, accusing Cruz of being involved in the death. In reality, Cruz represented one of the players in the scandal in a civil matter, not the criminal issues at stake. National Journal called the ad a stretch and said it represented a “Hail Mary” pass by the Dewhurst campaign.
The latest attempt to smear Cruz came Monday. Dewhurst was in San Antonio speaking to a rally before the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Before Dewhurst spoke, retired U.S. Navy pilot Jake Elizey referenced a Cruz comment that he would be a “fighting conservative” in the Senate: “I dare Ted Cruz to come in to any VFW post anywhere in the state and talk about fighting. Mr. Cruz, you’re not a fighter because you’ve never worn the uniform.” Dewhurst did more than let that slur slide. When asked if Elizey’s comments were fair, he told reporters: “I agree with the commander.”
Dewhurst’s negative campaign appears to have hurt him with Texas voters: Several people I talked with at the Dallas event said the Dewhurst ads were undignified or amounted to character assassination. Cruz himself told me the ads make him feel he was being turned into a cartoon villain.
But the real villain in the race for many voters is the Texas Republican establishment, which has dominated the state’s politics for over a decade, but failed to bring the kind of sweeping change tea partiers feel is necessary. Today, we will see just how powerful the grassroots elements of the Tea Party are. It was one thing when Indiana senator Dick Lugar lost by 22 points to Tea Party–backed Richard Mourdock in May. But Texas is more than four times bigger than Indiana and a center of conservative power within the Republican party. If Cruz cruises to victory today it will signal that business-as-usual Republicans had better go through an attitude adjustement to avoid defeat in party primaries. Put me down as predicting that Cruz wins by double digits.