Republicans in Washington, who stayed publicly neutral in the Texas race, acknowledged that the tea party is still viable, but they hoped that its energy can be steered into supporting presidential challenger Mitt Romney and Republican congressional candidates.
“Part of what it says is, people are mad at Washington, D.C. They’re mad at what they perceive to be the establishment, and they want some change. And I certainly understand why,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Paul, along with several other tea-party-aligned Republican senators, stumped for Cruz at a rally of thousands in Austin last week. “The narrative that the tea party is not a big deal and that it’s over, I think that’s a wrong narrative,” he said Tuesday.
A Texas-size win
Kibbe said Cruz’s win is the biggest this year for tea party activists, calling it “an 11 and Indiana a 10” on the scale of importance. The reason, according to Kibbe and other tea party leaders, is because of the sheer size of Texas.
In the 2010 primaries, the movement fared best in smaller states without large media markets — places such as Delaware, where neophyte Christine O’Donnell used grass-roots support to sweep past a 30-year veteran of state GOP politics. Just 50,000 people voted in that primary. The tea party’s feat was repeated in other small-turnout states, such as Nevada and Alaska.
This year, tea party leaders sought mostly pure conservatives but also candidates with more political and professional experience, aiming to appeal to activists as well as independents in the general election. “You’re not going to see any Christine O’Donnell train wrecks,” Kibbe predicted, noting O’Donnell’s defeat by nearly 20 points in that fall’s election.
Cruz epitomized that effort. Unlike some of the anti-intellectual candidates of the tea party past, he boasted of his undergraduate degree from Princeton University, his national debating championship, his Harvard law degree and his Supreme Court clerkship.
“I think he’s got the pedigree, he’s got all of it,” Paul said. “In fact, we’ve joked that he’s too smart for the Senate to fit in.”
Still, he entered the race a big underdog to Dewhurst, who has served a decade as lieutenant governor, a position that allows him to run the state Senate. Perry, who has been a larger-than-life figure in Texas politics, heartily endorsed his understudy, and Dewhurst poured $16.5 million of his own money into the race.
Strategists said Dewhurst’s campaign was premised on clearing the 50 percent threshold in the May primary, when 1.4 million Republicans voted. Once Cruz and other candidates dragged him to less than 45 percent of that initial ballot, Dewhurst was left Tuesday with an electorate half the size and composed of the most committed conservatives.