Until just days before the July 31 runoff election in Texas, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst was the prohibitive favorite to defeat insurgent challenger Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination to take the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison.
There were nine candidates in the Republican field for senate on primary day in May, about three or four too many for Dewhurst to win the primary outright. He fell about five percentage points short of a majority but nevertheless beat Cruz by close to eleven points. Victory in the runoff seemed assured.
But it didn’t’ happen.
Unlike any other state’s lieutenant governor, the lieutenant governor in Texas is a very, very powerful man. In 1876, in reaction to the perceived sins of Reconstruction governor E.J. Davis, the Texas Constitution was rewritten to the effect of greatly reducing the power of the governor and greatly increasing that of the lieutenant governor.
Few have exercised that power more vigorously than David Dewhurst, who has held the post since 2003. During the primary campaign, a couple of area business leaders told me privately that although they favored one of the other candidates for Hutchison’s senate seat, they would nonetheless not openly oppose Dewhurst for fear of reprisal on legislative issues that might affect their businesses.
Dewhurst carries a big stick and will use it.
With a personal fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars, massive name ID, the power of the lieutenant governor’s office and the endorsements of all the key establishment Republicans behind him, Dewhurst was theoretically unbeatable.
And yet he got clobbered in the runoff by Ted Cruz, despite the fact that Cruz was carpet-bombed by Dewhurst by about three to one in ad spending.
So what happened?
A number of things including the fact that some believe that Dewhurst went way too negative in his attacks on Cruz to the point that his own ads boomeranged on him.
But with that said, two words stand out. The tea party. (OK, that’s three words.)
Ted Cruz was the tea party favorite by a heavy margin. The grass roots effort on behalf of Cruz was huge, organized and extremely effective. Tea party supporters of Cruz got the word out and got their vote out while Dewhurst counted on the momentum of his large primary victory, his money advantage and the support of the establishment; a trifecta that in ordinary times would be insuperable.
But these are not ordinary times.
It remains to be seen if a big upset in Texas led by the tea party portends massive tea party impact on the presidential race in the swing states. But if I were a Democrat in the habit of comforting myself by dismissing the tea party as yesterday’s news and dismissing the tea party’s contributions to the seismic GOP victories in the 2010 midterm elections as a one-time aberration, the hair on the back of my neck might be tingling just a bit right now.
According to a number of polls, Obama and Romney are essentially tied nationally and Obama is up by as much as five percentage points in key states like Florida and Ohio. That’s pretty thin ice for an incumbent president three months out from election day.
Add to this calculus that until just days before the runoff, David Dewhurst was up by double digits, only to go down decisively in no small measure as a result of the efforts of the tea party, and there just might be some heartburn developing in the camp of Team Obama.
The tea party’s favorite hymnal selections – limited government, constitutional adherence, fiscal restraint – are well-known to the Romney camp. Don’t be surprised if you hear Romney singing them more frequently in the coming weeks.