By conservative acclamation, Ted Cruz should be headed to the U.S. Senate.
The Harvard law grad has been deemed “the next great conservative hope” by National Review. As the son of a Cuban exile, he has at times been compared to fellow Tea Party darling Marco Rubio. During Cruz's tenure as Texas solicitor general, he argued cases defending the Ten Commandments monument, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Second Amendment before the Supreme Court.
But whether Texas voters will heed the talk-radio consensus is another question.
After the Tea Party's rise in 2010, a surge of grassroots candidates began challenging the GOP establishment from the right. No race exemplifies that trend more profoundly right now than the battle between Cruz and Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Because the May 29 Republican primary failed to produce a majority winner -- Dewhurst fell shy of the threshold with 45 percent of the vote; Cruz trailed with 34 percent -- the two front-runners will now face off in a July 31 runoff.
Cruz told TAS that he remains confident of victory. In the last weeks of the primary race, Cruz's campaign secured endorsements from Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Sean Hannity, among other notable conservatives, and -- surely it was no accident -- closed in on Dewhurst's lead. Cruz said he's positive that this was "a demonstration of the strong momentum of the campaign."
Indeed, though Cruz still trailed in the primary by 11 points, a September poll showed him down by as many as 29 points. It's clear he has made up some of that ground. But he has run most of the race against the wind.
Dewhurst, the state's three-time lieutenant governor and a self-made energy mogul, has to his advantage extensive political experience, connections, and personal wealth -- in this race alone, he has spent a staggering $9 million of his own fortune. He also has the endorsement of longtime Texas Governor Rick Perry, with whom he claims to share "one of the most fiscally and socially conservative records in America."
Perry's backing has made a difference. William Lutz, managing editor of the Lone Star Report, pointed out that "just about everything that Rick Perry is taking credit for was through Dewhurst…if you like Perry, you have to like Dewhurst because, to some extent, they have the same record."
For some, that record demonstrates Dewhurst's conservative bona fides. Joe Pojman, founder of Texas Alliance for Life, which endorsed Dewhurst, said his tenure has been "a litany of one pro-life success after another."
But there's also no denying that the lieutenant governor has made plenty of friends and built up substantial political capital over his 14 years in state elected office -- first as land commissioner, then, starting in 2003, as lieutenant governor under Perry. Lutz said that "part of the reason the pro-life groups are all endorsing Dewhurst -- even though Ted Cruz is also pro-life -- is because they've worked with him for 10 years."
A look at each candidate's endorsement page is instructive. Cruz's reads like a who's who of conservatism. Sarah Palin. Rick Santorum. Jim DeMint. Ron Paul. Rand Paul. Mark Levin.
Dewhurst's reads like a list of those whose backs he's scratched. Texas Credit Union League. Texas Oil and Gas PAC. Texas Restaurant Association. Texas Municipal Police Association.
WITH JUST OVER A MONTH remaining before the runoff, Cruz's chances remain uncertain.
Not only has the level of spending, at more than $31.6 million so far, been "Texas-sized," the campaigns have been less than civil. Dewhurst has targeted Cruz's involvement with two Hispanic organizations to paint his opponent as a proponent for amnesty for illegal immigrants. (Both organizations say they support no such thing.) The allegations have been widely condemned by conservative media and figures like George P. Bush, who said that "[this] is the type of divisive racial politics used by President Obama and the Democrats. It has no place in the Republican Party."
But Dewhurst's campaign stands by the charge.
"We were only pointing out the fact that Ted Cruz serves on the board of a group that supports amnesty," campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch told TAS.
He also defended the lieutenant governor's record and cited Dewhurst's role in defunding Planned Parenthood and balancing the budget without raising taxes.
"David Dewhurst will never compromise his conservative principles, and he never has," Hirsch said. "That's a strong proven conservative record, which Ted Cruz doesn't have."
Meanwhile, the Cruz campaign has focused on Dewhurst's "tax-and-spend record." For instance, Texas has no state income tax, but in 2005 Dewhurst pushed for a "wage tax" that the Wall Street Journal called "a fancy disguise for a personal income tax."
Cruz told TAS that "my opponent has spent fifteen years in elected office, cutting deals, repeatedly compromising with Democrats to increase spending and taxes."
Throughout the campaign, Cruz has taken that message to the Tea Party. As it is, Texas Tea Partiers were alienated by Dewhurst's role in killing a bill last year that would have restricted TSA agents from conducting airport pat-downs. The lieutenant governor supposedly backed down when the federal government threatened to shut down Texas airports.
"You cannot find a Tea Party leader in the state of Texas that’s supporting David Dewhurst," Cruz said. "That's like a fish on a bicycle -- it’s something that doesn’t exist."
In the end, it is those Tea Partiers who may have the power to put Cruz into office.
"Republicans deserved to lose in 2008. We didn't stand for anything; we had lost our principles," Cruz said. The Tea Party movement, he asserted, is "the best thing to happen to the party since the Reagan revolution in 1980."
But is the movement actually sustainable or would it, like so many grassroots movements before it, merely sting and die?
Cruz clearly disagreed with the latter, playfully quoting Mark Twain: "Rumors of our death are much exaggerated."