HOUSTON—Brace yourself, Texas, for a long hot summer of nasty campaign commercials.
David Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor who’s the front-runner in the Republican race for U.S. Senate, is winning the most votes in results from Tuesday’s primary but not enough to avoid a runoff.
Ted Cruz, the former solicitor general who exploded into a favorite of tea party movement conservatives, appears on track to fight Dewhurst in what promises to be an intensely negative campaign lasting most of the summer.
The runoff is scheduled for July 31.
Cruz’s challenge to Dewhurst, the candidate backed by much of the state’s traditional Republican machinery, has been closely watched as a bellwether for the strength of tea party movement favorites nationwide. With Dewhurst backed by GOP stalwarts like Gov. Rick Perry and Cruz supported by the likes of Sarah Palin, the race has been billed as a high-stakes contest between the Texas Republican establishment and tea party movement conservatives.
The campaign quickly evolved into a contest over which candidate was most conservative. Both candidates produced intensely negative commercials scoffing at each other’s conservative credentials. One of Cruz’s spots used “moderate” as something close to a curse word, branding it across still images of Dewhurst.
“The word moderate was meant to be a negative on me,” Dewhurst said. “I’m a proud conservative. At the same time, I will work to move what is in the best interest of the state of Texas forward.”
At one time, the Senate seat now occupied by the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison seemed to be Dewhurst’s to lose. But the turmoil triggered by court fights over redistricting delayed the primary more than two months, giving Cruz and other candidates time to build their campaigns against the better-financed Dewhurst.
Also helping Cruz, political analysts say, was a very low voter turnout, a phenomenon that generally favors ideologically driven candidates supported by extremely motivated voters. The low turnout common to primaries was exacerbated by a voting day scheduled immediately after the Memorial Day weekend.
Now both campaigns face the daunting task of motivating voters during the dead heat of summer, when families are more focused on vacations than politics. Again, political analysts figure the low turnout will probably help Cruz.
Dewhurst outspent Cruz by a roughly 4 to 1 ratio, but that’s likely to change for the runoff. Cruz’s strong showing will not only attract more campaign contributions from across the country, political analysts predict, it will also energize his voting base.
“I think the money really flows to him,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist who’s also KHOU’s political analyst. “Cruz’s people are going to really go crazy.”
Houston could play a more prominent role in the runoff, Stein predicts. With former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert out of the race, he believes a greater percentage of the runoff vote will come from the Houston area.
By the night of the primary, Dewhurst had already prepared a camera ready quip joking about the impending runoff.
“June and July, traveling around the state, I’ll probably lose some weight,” Dewhurst repeatedly joked on the last day of the campaign. “So it’ll be good for me.”