HOUSTON—In the dead of summer, at a time when temperatures soar and sane people go on vacation, Texans are going to the polls again to wrap up an unprecedented season of summertime primaries.
Across the state, early voting has begun in the party runoffs for everything from county constable posts to judge’s jobs. But by far, the hottest race of all in this long, hot summer is the Republican race to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate.
Just a few months ago, a lot of people in politics figured the job was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s to lose. Now, improbably, it looks like that just might happen, with some polls showing him trailing the insurgent Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz.
Dewhurst and Cruz both cast their ballots Monday on the first day of early voting. Dewhurst was accompanied in Austin by Gov. Rick Perry, the highest-ranking name in an army of establishment elected officials backing the lieutenant governor’s campaign. Cruz voted in Houston at the West Gray Multi-Service Center, crediting his dramatic rise in the polls to a grassroots campaign backed by fed-up conservative voters.
"It’s July," Dewhurst said. "And we’ve never had an election in July that I’m aware of. So this is completely new. A lot of people are gone. A lot of people are focusing on their families and vacations. And so, in a way, we’re interrupting them. But this is an important election."
Perry stood by Dewhurst’s side, defending the lieutenant-governor’s conservative credentials and knocking Cruz for accepting a lot of campaign money from donors in other states.
"I don’t know any of the major business groups in the state that are not endorsing and working for David Dewhurst because of what he’s done for the state," Perry said.
Dewhurst has won the backing of almost all Republican state senators, many of whom bristle at Cruz’s attacks on Dewhurst as attacks on their own records. But Cruz dismissed the senators’ support of Dewhurst.
"He has always had the support of just about every elected official in Texas," Cruz said. "That’s never been our base. Our base has been grassroots activists. It has been from day one in this campaign. When we began in this campaign a year and a half ago, I was at two percent in the polls. And the margin of error was three percent."
The latest independent poll, released by Public Policy Polling, showed Cruz supported by 49 percent of surveyed voters, compared to Dewhurst’s 44 percent. Cruz’s lead expands dramatically with voters who say they’re excited about the race, indicating his voters are more likely than Dewhurst’s to turn out for the summer primary runoff. (The poll has a 4.5-percent margin of error.)
Whoever wins the GOP primary will face a Democratic challenger—either former state representative Paul Sadler or party activist Sean Hubbard—in November. But Texas remains a staunchly Republican state, so whoever wins next week’s GOP primary will almost certainly win the Senate seat. And if history offers any guide, either Dewhurst or Cruz will represent Texas in Washington for a very long time to come.
Dewhurst agreed to one final debate before a crowd friendly to Cruz: The King Street Patriots, a Houston-based conservative group that’s a hotbed of Tea Party sentiment.
"These Republican voters are not just conservative anti-spend-and-tax," said Bob Stein, Rice University political scientist and KHOU political analyst. "They believe that anybody who’s been in office for any period of time is the source of this problem. One of the greatest assets Ted Cruz has got is that he’s never run for—and never been elected to—public office."
The strange summertime primaries that could cost Dewhurst his shot at a Senate seat trace back to a decision made by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose legal strategies surrounding the state’s redistricting process ultimately threw the election season into chaos.
Every decade, Texas lawmakers draw maps dividing the state into districts for seats in Congress and the state legislature. Republicans controlling the Texas Legislature adopted maps designed to maximize the number of GOP voters. Texas usually asks the U.S. Justice Department to "pre-clear" its redistricting maps, but Abbott decided to bypass the Democratically controlled Justice Department by going directly to court.
Then minority groups filed suit in San Antonio, where judges took the extraordinary step of deciding to draw their own maps. Abbott challenged that and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The legal challenges delayed the March primaries until May, giving Cruz time to build his grassroots campaign. The summer primaries almost certainly lowered voter turnout, a phenomenon that probably helped Cruz, because polls indicate his supporters are more motivated to vote than Dewhurst’s.
Early voting continues through Friday. The Republican and Democratic primaries are scheduled for next Tuesday, July 31.