A Texas-style showdown between establishment Republicans and Tea Party outsiders will be decided Tuesday night in the Lone Star State's primary runoff for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general, have been locked in a hotly contested fight all summer. Dewhurst won the initial primary in May but failed to secure enough votes in the initial nine-candidate primary field to avoid a runoff with second place finisher Cruz.
A new poll shows that this time Cruz may be the frontrunner. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted over the weekend has Cruz leading 52 percent to 42 percent. If Cruz wins it will mark a dramatic turnaround for a candidate who has been heavily outspent by Dewhurst. As of this month, Cruz has raised $9 million compared to the more than $24.5 million raised by Dewhurst.
Cruz, who would be the first Hispanic to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, has made this a race despite little name recognition in a state with nearly two-dozen media markets. He has done numerous candidate forums dating back to last year, many of which Dewhurst declined to attend.
"We're on the 2-yard line. We have marched the entire length of the field. We started out up in the hot dog stands," Cruz said at a rally on July 27. "Do the grassroots matter? This race is the test for that proposition."
Dewhurst, meanwhile, has poured millions of his own money into the race-and as lieutenant governor has overseen the Texas Senate since 2003. In the process he has won the support of most of the state's Republican heavy hitters such as Gov. Rick Perry, who campaigned alongside Dewhurst on Monday.
Dewhurst has portrayed Cruz as inexperienced: Cruz has never run for elected political office before. "I have a record," Dewhurst said at the race's last debate July 23 in Houston. "Its right there. Everyone can see it, and I'm proud of that record. If Texas was as bad as my opponent says it is in all of his ads, Texas would look like California."
Cruz, 41, has been aided during his campaign by a steady stream of money from national conservative groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. National Tea Party figures like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sarah Palin have also made appearances at Texas rallies for Cruz.
A former clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Cruz has told voters that he would join a block of stalwart fiscal and social conservatives, led by DeMint, who adhere to the Constitution's restraint on the power of federal government.
"If you want to dramatically shrink the size and power of the federal government and address the debt, the Senate is the battlefield," Cruz told me last spring when I visited him in Houston. "Today there are six and or seven strong free market conservatives in the Senate. I think it is absolutely critical that we grow those numbers."
Dewhurst has upped his campaign events throughout the summer, trying to counter claims that he is not conservative enough by making appearances like the one Monday at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in South Austin. There Dewhurst showed his support for a company under attacks from social liberals for its support of traditional marriage.
Later, at an event at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in San Antonio, Dewhurst tweaked Cruz's reputation for fiery rhetoric: "Normally, I've found in my life that the louder you speak, probably, the less of a fighter you are."
If Cruz is able to defeat an establishment Republican, it will reverberate like other Tea Party victories this year in Senate primaries in Indiana and Nebraska. In a state like Texas with its powerfully entrenched state Republican Party, a come-from-behind underdog win by Cruz would provide a significant boost in the Tea Party's power struggle with traditional Republicans.
The Republican primary winner for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison will be the favorite in the general election this November. Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.