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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Are Texas Republicans As Smart As Florida Voters?

Left: An image of Marco Rubio from his days as Speaker of the Florida
House of Representatives graced the cover of National Review in
September of 2009. Right: Former Texas Solicitor Gen. Ted Cruz, a
Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, made the cover of National
Review
last October. (Composite Photo)


Here's a story: A handsome, young, Cuban-American lawyer makes a long-shot bid for a U.S. Senate seat. He has impeccable conservative credentials and a captivating personal story, being the son of Cuban immigrants, but he doesn't have the name recognition or fundraising machinery of his main competition in the Republican primary, an affable, if slightly dull, power broker who has held elected office continuously for over a decade. Slowly but surely, he cultivates an enthusiastic grassroots base and attracts a lot of out-of-state attention (and money). The media brands him "the TEA Party candidate" in the race, a label he doesn't shy away from. In time, he's the toast of talk radio, the hottest subject in conservative circles and a real threat to the GOP "establishment". He's still an underdog, but not like he once was. Voters across the state latch on to his message of a smaller, more efficient, more responsible government. What was once dismissed as the quixotic quest of a far-right gadfly is soon recognized as the latest dark-horse candidacy in a pivotal election year.
 
In case it's not obvious, I'm talking about Ted Cruz, the former Texas solicitor general who is vying for retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's Senate seat, but the preceding paragraph could have just as easily been written about Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), back when he was Senate candidate Marco Rubio, the underdog in the 2010 Florida Republican primary for U.S. Senator. Given Cruz's heritage, the tenor of his campaign and the dynamics of his primary battle with Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R), it's not surprising that he's drawn comparisons to the freshman U.S. Senator who's now being touted as arguably the best choice for vice president on the Republican ticket, and the editors of National Review had to know that the comparisons would only continue after Cruz's visage graced the cover of their magazine last fall.

Last October, National Review gave Ted Cruz the Marco Rubio treatment, making him the subject of the cover story in their October 17 issue. Just over two years earlier, the magazine had done the same with Rubio, who at the time was trailing then-Gov. Charlie Crist in Republican primary polls by double digits.

“I’m not Don Quixote here,” Rubio was quoted as saying in the article. “This campaign embodies everything you’re hearing at the town halls.”

Like Rubio, Cruz thrives at town hall events, revving up the crowd with his enthusiastic prose--heavy on policy and light on pie-in-the-sky campaign pablum--before taking questions from individual attendees. Unlike Rubio, however, he had more than one primary foe to dispatch, and neither Dewhurst nor former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert had the kind of weaknesses that brought down Crist's campaign. Nonetheless, in the primary on Tuesday, Cruz was able to finish a strong second to Dewhurst, who failed to break the 50% threshold necessary to avoid a runoff.

Cruz is still the underdog; the results of at least one poll conducted before the primary indicated that Dewhurst would prevail over Cruz in a runoff by a wide margin (25 points). Don't expect that to discourage him, however; the 34.2% of the vote he managed to get in the first round of voting exceeded his showing in every poll of the race. There's other things that will work in his favor, too: runoffs tend to favor those candidates with the more excited--i.e., motivated--base. (Cruz's advantage here may be overtold, though. In the primary, Dewhurst fared slightly better and Cruz did slightly worse among early voters, a key indicator of voter enthusiasm.) Cruz also has two whole months from today to campaign, though my sources tell me both candidates' campaign coffers have been depleted, and only one of them has a nine-figure net worth.

The margin between Dewhurst's and Cruz's vote totals--just over ten percentage points--supports multiple inferences. On the one hand, it was a lot smaller than polls had been suggesting. On the other, it means that Dewhurst has a much smaller gap to close than does Cruz. Still, history tells us that the first-place finisher in the primary is by no means a shoo-in in the runoff; in the 2002 U.S. Senate race, Victor Morales edged out Ron Kirk in the Democratic primary, but Kirk won the runoff by twenty percentage points. To use a more recent example from our next-door neighbor, Bobby Jindal finished fifteen points ahead of then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco in the first round of the 2003 Louisiana governor's race, only to lose the runoff to her, 52%-48%, in a shocking upset. (Funny story: Blanco turned out to be such an awful governor that she didn't even run for re-election in 2007, and Jindal handily won the governorship that year without a runoff.)

Of course, the 2010 U.S. Senate election in Florida wasn't decided by the Republican primary, as this race will be; after seeing his double-digit lead lead in the polls turn into a double-digit deficit, Crist made what in retrospect may have been a career-ending blunder: he dropped out of the GOP primary and continued his candidacy as an independent. Florida voters saw this opportunistic stunt for what it was, and Rubio trounced Crist by nineteen points (winning 49% of the vote to Crist's 30%) in the general election. 
In Dewhurst, Cruz does not have a challenger as flawed as Charlie Crist, but he does have a strong message that has resonated with a growing mass of Texas voters. He's also got a nationwide fundraising apparatus and endorsements from just about every influential conservative who's not currently holding public office. This July, Texas voters have a choice: we can settle for the "sufficiently conservative" or "conservative enough" (or whatever Dewhurst's backers consider him) candidate, or we can send a younger, more erudite (and, I would argue, more conservative), passionate advocate to Washington and add to a burgeoning bloc of young, bold congressional Republicans resolved to effect major structural reforms in the near future, if only they could get the reinforcements they need. In 2010, Floridians chose the latter. Will Texans show they have at least as much sense as voters on the other side of the Gulf?

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