Onetime long shot Ted Cruz won the Republican nomination in a U.S. Senate race in Texas on Tuesday, providing tea party activists with renewed momentum in what they said was their biggest victory of the year.
Cruz, a 41-year-old former Texas solicitor general and a first-time candidate for elective office, is the tea party’s first bona fide star of the 2012 campaign: a charismatic speaker with an up-by-the-bootstraps biography who upended the Republican establishment in the nation’s largest red state.
With all precincts reporting, Cruz won 13 percent more votes than Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a powerful GOP figure who spent freely from his vast personal fortune and had endorsements from most of the state’s influential Republicans, including Gov. Rick Perry.
Tea party leaders hailed Cruz’s 56.8 percent to 43.2 percent victory as a sign of the movement’s political maturation. After bursting onto the scene in 2010, the tea party this year suffered defeats in a few Senate primaries, appeared divided in several GOP contests, and before Tuesday mustered just one clear victory — in Indiana, where state Treasurer Richard Mourdock ousted 36-year Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), whose missteps contributed to his primary defeat.
Following Mourdock’s victory in early May, conservative activists mapped out a strategy to emphasize the Lone Star State. The first step was keeping Dewhurst below the 50 percent threshold in a multi-candidate primary on May 29, triggering a runoff. That gave them two months to mobilize for a one-on-one contest.
Cruz’s win, they believe, could be a springboard to victories in other primaries this month.
“Texas built on Indiana,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group that helps finance conservative anti-establishment candidates. “Activists all over the country are watching Texas. We’ve kind of nationalized the race.”
The next big Senate primary will come Tuesday in Missouri, where a trio of conservatives are fighting for tea party support.
The following week, Wisconsin will provide another clear contest between the establishment — former governor Tommy Thompson — and outsiders. Most conservatives, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), have thrown their support to former congressman Mark Neumann, but some have lined up behind investor Eric Hovde.
In late August, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — a longtime hero to anti-spending groups — will try to fight off a challenge from businessman Wil Cardon, who is spending millions of his own money trying to portray himself as a true outsider.
Cruz — whose father immigrated from Cuba in 1957 with $100 sewn into his underwear — is almost assured of joining the Senate. Given Texas’s Republican tilt, Democrats have not put many resources into the general-election contest to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R). Former state representative Paul Sadler won the Democratic primary on Tuesday night and will face Cruz in November.
Like Lugar, Hutchison hails from the more mainstream wing of the GOP, and their potential replacements are almost certain to lean much further right.
“If and when Mourdock and Cruz get here, the caucus becomes more conservative,” said Paul, whose 2010 primary victory over Kentucky’s Republican establishment was the tea party’s first major win.
In 2010, the movement had its share of ephemeral victories, nominating some candidates who lost general-election battles. Democrats think that pattern could play out again, and in Indiana they are already running ads against Mourdock, who on Tuesday attended the weekly Senate GOP luncheon and mended fences with Lugar in an effort to rally establishment support.
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.
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.