AUSTIN, Texas -- Three-term Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will find out Tuesday if Republican voters want to give him one more term -- or let someone else carry the party banner in the November general election.
Either way, a long and grueling contest between the incumbent and state Sen. Dan Patrick, his challenger, will come to an end. The contest has seen biting advertisements, blustery debates, bitterly personal attacks and at least one bizarre YouTube video.
"In a nutshell it's been ugly, just what we expected, and will probably be ugly until the very last minute," said Texas Politics Project director and University of Texas Professor James R. Henson.
The incumbent's campaign initially focused on burnishing his credentials among core conservative groups, and advertising remained relatively above the fray during a competitive four way Republican primary. Yet after finishing a distant second to Patrick on March 4, Dewhurst's reelection hopes have largely hinged on a campaign strategy of portraying the Houston talk radio host as unelectable.
"It certainly seems though that the way that that's happened has not been handled well, and has probably not damaged Patrick sufficiently to knock him out of the race or to give Dewhurst the lead back," said Henson. "We'll find out on Tuesday."
With the two largely in agreement on most policy issues, Patrick's campaign has sought to portray Dewhurst as insufficiently conservative and weak. Patrick declared his campaign to unseat the Texas Senate's presiding officer shortly after Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis' filibuster temporarily derailed a controversial anti-abortion bill last June.
"Because of a lack of leadership Tuesday night, not only did we lose that important legislation, but we have also elevated now a rallying point for the other party," Patrick said at his June 27 campaign launch. "It should never have happened."
Since then, both candidates have been fighting for an extremely small set of voters. Out of 13 million registered voters, just 1.1 million voted in the 2012 GOP runoff for U.S. Senate between Dewhurst and Ted Cruz. According to numbers from the Texas Secretary of State, a little more than 238,000 have voted in the current GOP runoff in the state's ten most populous counties.
Meanwhile, the success of incumbents nationwide this month -- in particular seemingly endangered U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) -- has led some to ask whether the Tea party's strength is waning. But if Tea party aligned candidates such as Patrick do well Tuesday, it will likely be a sign conservative purists still hold powerful sway in Texas.
"I think the narrative here so far from the primary is that the Republican Party of Texas is still dominated by very conservative voters at the primary level statewide," said Henson.
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Election coverage begins on KVUE Daybreak and will continue through the evening.