For Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican Senate primary Tuesday is all about survival.
Mr. Cruz, the former Texas solicitor general and a tea party favorite, is vying to succeed Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison.
To get there, he and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert have to hold the front-runner and establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, under 50 percent of the vote Tuesday. That would force a runoff between the two top vote getters in two months time.
With polls showing Mr. Dewhurst hovering right under the 50 percent mark and with Cruz well ahead of Mr. Leppert for second place, the election could go a long way toward determining whether Cruz is remembered as a tumbleweed before the steel train of the Texas GOP establishment or, perhaps, the next tea party candidate to successfully hog-tie a seemingly unbeatable front-runner.
Cruz has an uphill battle even after Tuesday. According to a Public Policy Polling survey released last week, Dewhurst would merit 59 percent support versus 35 percent for Cruz in a mano-a-mano runoff.
But there are markers that Cruz could overcome even that steep polling cliff given his conservative bona fides and legion of tea party backers. If he is successful, he could be part of the wave of deeply conservative and uncompromising members of the House and Senate storming Capitol Hill.
If Cruz survives to a runoff, some of his supporters who have not gone all-in on the race would have reason to open their checkbooks. Second, a runoff gives Cruz more time to introduce himself to Texas voters – as a former government lawyer who has never held an elected office, he’s way behind Dewhurst and Leppert in familiarity to most Texans.
And third, a runoff in the smothering heat of a Texas summer cuts back on voters with the least conviction – and if you support Ted Cruz, you’re probably willing to brave a lot more than a little sun to get to the ballot box.
A look at Cruz’s resume helps explain his appeal to tea party conservatives.
The son of a Cuban political refugee who came to Texas with $100 sewn into his underwear, Cruz was a master debater as an undergraduate at Princeton before an honors-filled tour at Harvard Law School.
From there, Cruz clerked with conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and served in two legal posts within the George W. Bush administration before heading back to Texas. When, in 2003, he became Texas solicitor general, Cruz was the youngest person and first Hispanic to hold the post. He finished his term in 2008, having managed to argue cases that are catnip to conservative voters: US sovereignty against world courts, the Second Amendment, a controversial Texas monument to the Ten Commandments, and the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Let me just say that he embodies everything a Reagan conservative believes in,” wrote Jay Nordlinger at the conservative National Review. “He can talk like no one’s business – he can put into words what we all want to say, and what we all want others to know. The Left can’t lay a glove on him. He’s a doer, too – as he has proven in the Supreme Court, for example.”
It’s that biography fused with positions like supporting a balanced-budget amendment and the full repeal of President Obama’s health-care law that have drawn an outpouring of support from many of the GOP’s most conservative leaders.
Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum are both Cruz backers. In the Senate, tea party godfather Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina threw his weight (and financial contributions from his political action committee) behind Cruz. Senator DeMint’s like-minded sitting senators Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, Mike Lee (R) of Utah, and Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky are all in Cruz’s corner – as is Senator Paul’s father, Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas.
Together, that’s a lot of activist muscle. In comparison, Dewhurst can claim former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, still a renowned GOP figure. But Dewhurt’s endorsement page reads more like the RSVPs for an A-list Austin lobbying shindig than Cruz’s bonfire of national tea party leaders: Texas Oil and Gas PAC, Texas Restaurant Association, Texas Medical Association, Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, etc.
“It’s clear that Dewhurst and his allies have become desperate to avoid a runoff with Ted Cruz, because they know that David Dewhurst doesn’t come close to comparing with Ted Cruz on the issues,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola in announcing the club had spent nearly $2 million on the race earlier this month. “Ted Cruz is a principled conservative who will fight the big-spenders in both parties, while David Dewhurst is an establishment moderate who will fight conservatives in Washington just like he’s done in Austin.”
Completing the trifecta?
Following Richard Mourdock’s landslide Republican primary victory over incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana and Deb Fischer’s drubbing of the establishment Republican candidate in Nebraska, tea party groups and the Republican Party’s most conservative activists have two solid chances at increasing their number in the Senate. Cruz would certainly be a third.
The effect of Cruz’s election – strongly likely if he wins the runoff, given Texas’ conservative electorate – would be to swell the number of the GOP’s most unbending, most conservative wing to almost double-digits, or closing in on a quarter of the party caucus.
And from there Cruz and Mourdock, particularly, are of one mind about where the Senate needs to go: less compromise.
“What we need in the Senate is a fighter,” Cruz told a town hall last year. “We don’t need another establishment, career politician that’s going to put his arm around the Democrats and keep compromising in growing the size and spending and power of the federal government.”