Tea Party Staying Power: The Ted Cruz Victory

What the Republican candidate's primary win tells us about the grassroots movement.

Apparently the mainstream media's efforts to portray the Tea Party as irrelevant have fallen on deaf ears in Texas. A Tuesday night runoff between establishment Republican candidate Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and lawyer Ted Cruz was no contest. Tea Party favorite Cruz romped to a 13-point victory, and will represent the GOP for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican incumbent Kay Bailey Hutchison. "This is a victory for the grassroots," Cruz told his supporters at the J.W. Marriot Hotel in Houston. "We should take it as a providential sign that today would be the 100th birthday of Milton Friedman."

At one point in the campaign, Cruz was considered a long shot to beat Dewhurst, who had the backing of most elected state Republicans, including Governor Rick Perry. Despite his own dalliance with the Tea Party, Perry opted to back Dewhurst, offering the candidate his support, and part of his political apparatus as well, including consultant David Carney. The governor “is now the big loser,” wrote Paul Burka, longtime political analyst at Texas Monthly. “I think his political career may be over.”

Burka may not be exaggerating. A Public Polling Policy (PPP) piece entitled "Tonight's Second Biggest Loser" noted that "two times more Texas Republicans considered an endorsement from Rick Perry to be a negative than a positive. 35% said they were less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Perry, 15% said they were more likely to, and 50% said they didn't care either way. PPP further contended that "Perry's standing has been significantly diminished in Texas after his failed White House bid and that he could be in serious trouble if he tries for another term in 2014," with 29 percent of voters thinking he should pursue another term as Governor and 64 percent saying he should not.

Yet Perry aside, Cruz's victory represented a stunning turnaround in the space of two months. In May, Dewhurst had a commanding 46-29 lead over Cruz, with three other candidates picking up the other 20 percent of the vote total, and the remaining 5 percent undecided. Head to head, Dewhurst's lead was even greater at 59-34. Unfortunately the three additional candidates in the race made a critical difference: they prevented Dewhurst from picking up the 50 percent total in the first round of primaries that would have made a runoff with Cruz unnecessary.

But in a campaign described as bare-knuckles brawl, Cruz began to steadily gain on Dewhurst aided by a host of conservatives, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), as well as national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, which contributed $5.5 million to Cruz's campaign, and FreedomWorks, a Tea Party SuperPac. Freedom Works claimed Cruz's victory signals that their particular brand of conservatism--highlighted by a desire to shrink the size of government, re-introduce fiscal integrity in congressional budget-making and re-invigorate constitutional principles--is gaining acceptance. "When Ted gets to Washington, he's going to be seen correctly as a giant-killer," said Sal Russo, co-founder and chief strategist of Tea Party Express, the nation's largest Tea Party political action committee. "The big thing that I think this demonstrates is that the Tea Party is far from gone--it's truly alive and well," he added.

Reality is a bit different. While there is considerable daylight between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party at the national level, Republicans in Texas tend to be conservative and more conservative. Thus, despite millions of dollars in ad money spent by both sides to convince voters that there were big differences between the candidates, both men made a great effort to portray themselves as dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Both pledged to rein in government spending and overturn the Affordable Health Care Act. Both favored tougher immigration laws, cutting taxes and reining in the EPA. And both made visits to Chick-fil-a franchises in the waning moments of the campaign in order to demonstrate their support for traditional marriage.

So what propelled Cruz to victory? Three factors were seemingly the difference. First, Cruz, who is a former a Princeton University debate champion and a Harvard Law School graduate, made the most out of his debate performances. Second, some Texans likely viewed Dewhurst as an incumbent, due to his 14 years of state government experience in a year where incumbency could be a liability, considering the public's record levels of contempt for Congress. Third, Cruz is Cuban-American, and its no secret that Texas Republicans are eager to court a Hispanic population that traditionally votes Democrat, even as it is becoming an ever-greater segment of the Texas population. Thus, it is no surprise that Cruz is being compared to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who also beat Republican establishment candidate Charlie Crist in a come-from-behind win in the 2010 election. Unlike Rubio, Cruz is an almost certain winner in November. Texas hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.

Yet what kind of influence Cruz will have on the Senate remains impossible to say at this point. A lot depends on whether or not the Republicans can capture the Senate, hold the House and/or win the presidency. Yet Cruz's victory proves there is little doubt that the Tea Party's demise has been greatly exaggerated by a mainstream media that has done its utmost to label it racist, responsible for the both the Gabby Giffords and Aurora atrocities, anti-immigrant, Islamo-phobic, or largely irrelevant with respect to the 2012 election.

Ted Cruz proves otherwise and he has served notice on the RINO wing of the Republican Party. “This race has been called ground zero in the national battle between the moderate establishment desperately clinging to power and the conservative tidal wave sweeping this country,” he told Fox News. 

That message should also resonate with Americans convinced there is little ideological difference between Beltway Democrats and Republicans. Ted Cruz and his fellow Tea Party Republicans intend to challenge that status quo. And no matter where individual Americans stand ideologically, they should admire their effort to draw sharp distinctions between the parties. The bet here is most of the public is sick to death of elections where choices inevitably come down to the "lesser of two evils."

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