To the surprise of just about no one in the end, the top two vote-getters in the Republican primary for the seat of retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) Tuesday represented the establishment and tea party factions of the Lone Star State GOP. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst took 45 percent of the primary vote, while former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz came in second with 35 percent. They will next meet in a runoff July 31 that, if it’s anything like the primary that just ended, should be bare-knuckled and bloody.
In topping a nine-candidate race and preparing for only the third Senate run-off ever for Texas Republicans (the first was won by George H.W. Bush back in 1964), Dewhurst and Cruz agreed on most issues. Both called themselves conservatives, were pro-life, pro-gun, and committed to repealing Obamacare. The difference was in their key supporters: Dewhurst had the backing of Gov. Rick Perry and most elected and party officials, as well as an estimated $15 million from his own wealth to spend. He was also endorsed by Mike Huckabee.
Cruz was backed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and his PAC, Rick Santorum, Fox TV’s Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin, whose endorsements have clearly packed a political wallop in contested Republican primaries this year. He also had the support of more tea parties than any other candidate. In addition, the Club for Growth SuperPAC spent nearly $2.5 million on Cruz’s behalf.
“If you like [Republican Sens.] Marco Rubio [Fla.] and Mike Lee [UT], then I’m your candidate,â? Cruz told us last year, saying his election to join the other 2010 winners “would shake up the Senate.â? Like Lee, the 41-year-old Cruz is a former law clerk for a Supreme Court justice — Lee clerked for Justice Samuel Alito, Cruz for the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist — and, like Rubio, he is the son of Cuban immigrants. To those who note he is also a past editor of the Harvard Law Review “like Barack Obama,â? Cruz shoots back: “That’s all we have in common!â?
The 66-year-old Dewhurst, however, took the lead in large part because his party contacts and roughly a 4-to-1 spending advantage over Cruz worked in the six major counties that provide most Republican votes in Texas. In the twilight days of the race, Dewhurst obviously felt Cruz was closing in on him and launched radio broadsides charging Cruz was associated with groups favoring illegal immigration. The Cruz forces hit back with a spot featuring Cathy Adams, former state GOP chairman and head of the Texas Eagle Forum, declaring that Cruz favored a fence along the border and opposed amnesty.
As the contest began already looking like a run-off between Dewhurst and Cruz, third-place finisher and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert began gaining in the polls. Many observers believed this was because Leppert, who has close ties within the Dallas business community, was becoming the alternative to “the other two guysâ? duking it out. Dewhurst, through his website, attacked the former mayor as a “liberalâ? who was soft on illegal immigration and too cozy with the Service Employees International Union. Leppert placed third with 15 percent of the vote.
As to how the Dewhurst-Cruz showdown will play out, it is difficult to say. The lieutenant governor clearly wanted to win outright in the primary and fell short. Moreover, tea partiers will be united behind Cruz and, in a turnout sure to be low, they will pack a powerful punch. But Dewhurst will also be able to spend what he needs, which makes the outcome of the run-off uncertain.