Tea party insurgent Ted Cruz’s thrilling and improbable victory over Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in Texas’s GOP Senate primary provides a model for future long-shot candidates to follow, though repeating what Cruz did will be difficult.
A long line of dominoes had to fall, in the precise order that they did, for Cruz to overcome an opponent who had every advantage a political candidate can have.
Dewhurst had unlimited financing (he spent at least $19.9 million of his own money), universal name recognition, unanimous support from the Austin political establishment and massive political power as the leader of the Texas Senate.
Ted Cruz had courage, wisdom and a hunch.
When Cruz’s eventual campaign manager told me in early 2011 that the former Texas solicitor general would likely run for retiring U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s Senate seat, I scoffed at the idea. The race was beyond his reach, he couldn’t raise enough money, he had never been on the ballot before, other likely candidates possessed statewide name recognition and Cruz’s Hispanic surname would hurt him in a Republican primary.
But Cruz and his team were undeterred by the naysayers. They went to work.
In Texas, if a primary candidate wins less than 50% of the vote, the top two primary candidates advance to a runoff. Cruz’s biggest insight was that he could win a runoff against Dewhurst; the hard part would be making it to the runoff.
Cruz set out to build the largest grassroots army in Texas history, believing that passionate supporters would act as force multipliers.
But first he needed help.
In politics, the shape of the field determines the race. Cruz needed to become the consensus conservative candidate in order to make it a one-on-one race against Dewhurst, so he could nationalize the campaign. When it began, four candidates sought the conservative mantle: Cruz, Railroad Commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones and former Secretary of State Roger Williams. Cruz came out ahead by outworking and outperforming his competition.
Early on, Cruz won the support of the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks (and later the Tea Party Express), whose outside efforts would prove critical later. He unexpectedly raised significant money (about $1 million every three months), a task made more difficult by the large, unsettled field.
Conservatives gradually lined up behind Cruz, giving him momentum and forcing the other conservative candidates to drop out. By the filing deadline, Cruz was the only tea party candidate in the race.