Once seen as nearly impossible due to his lack of name recognition and funding, former Solicitor General of Texas Ted Cruz beat Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst on July 31 in a primary runoff to win his first election and become the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Texas. This is being billed by “the grassroots” (a phrase Cruz uses every thirty seconds) as the ultimate Tea Party triumph, a slaying of dragons bigger even than the takedown of longtime Senator Lugar of Indiana earlier in this primary cycle.
So how did Cruz win? How did a Canadian-born, Ivy Leaguer (twice over), lawyer, and adjunct law professor who worked for the federal government in Washington D.C. triumph in one of the 2012 election cycle’s most expensive races?
There are three things I’ll point out:
1) The single most important factor was the delay until July 31 after neither Cruz nor Dewhurst got 50% of votes the first time around, giving Cruz time to gain out-of-state support, ahead of the required runoff election. Cruz desperately needed outside help—none of which came free. Expect Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), for instance, to begin leaning on Cruz almost immediately in return. Had the primary been held as originally planned months ago on Super Tuesday, Dewhurst would have won by double-digits. Had Dewhurst run a better campaign, he would have won in the delayed primary in May.
Cruz benefitted immensely from the Texas Legislature’s fiddling with redistricting this year. Nearly all Republican officeholders in Texas went for Dewhurst, making those same State Senators (as well as Attorney General Greg Abbott) who manipulated the redistricting process partly responsible for his defeat.
2) The second is the Dewhurst campaign. It lacked not for money or political consultants, but for grand strategy. Dewhurst never got practiced enough delivering his talking points, nor did he blow Cruz out of the water in either of the two debates. Most of all, however, the negative campaign ads he and supporting PACs ran in the final weeks really damaged his image as a man of integrity. What were meant to be character attacks on Cruz instead reflected poorly on the Dewhurst campaign. It also didn’t counter the “moderate” label Cruz hurled at Dewhurst, the most damaging label possible in this primary.
3) Thirdly, the political skill of Ted Cruz put him over the top. The overall trend of events leading up to 2010 and the Tea Party positioned Cruz to talk about his five years as Solicitor General of Texas. He followed Governor Rick Perry’s lead in venturing increasingly rightward, defending conservative causes in court and often winning, giving him a role in the creation of Tea Party sentiment. An uncompromising, ideologically pure record—the kind leaders in government lose as they pass bills—and personal charm helped Cruz to swing from certain defeat to victory.
Nationally, other races will have many of the same dynamics: Tea Partiers and “the grassroots” vs. established politicians, out-of-state connections vs. local endorsements, PAC money vs. personal contributions, perceived “moderates” vs. “true” conservatives (or Democrats). Undoubtedly,there will be many more negative campaign ads. But only very skilled manipulators with lots of cash can take on entrenched forces and hope to win.