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Both candidates are fighting to claim the “anti-Washington” conservative mantle.

The “tea party vs. establishment” metaphor in this race is somewhat overblown, some political experts say, as either candidate likely would vote lock-step with GOP leadership if elected.

“In the big picture, you send one or you send the other, and they’re pretty much going to do the same thing” in Congress, said Harvey J. Tucker, a Texas A&M University political science professor.

The heated race is as much or more about a political and personal rivalry than a fight for the direction of the Texas GOP, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at University of Texas at Austin.

Dewhurst and Cruz are both racing to be in the same place. That’s not a battle for the heart and soul” of the state party, he said.

High voter turnout likely means more moderates at the polls, which would play to Mr. Dewhurst’s advantage. Early voting returns so far suggest a decent turnout, at least compared with Texas’ historically low averages, Mr. Tucker said.

Mr. Henson says conventional wisdom points to a Dewhurst win. But in this atypical Texas Republican squabble, it’s too close to call.

“My head says Dewhurst, but my gut tells me Cruz,” he said. “The Cruz campaign has momentum. I just think Dewhurst has had trouble making the sale.”

Even if Mr. Dewhurst prevails, the race has highlighted the growing influence and relevance of the tea party movement in the Texas GOP, Mr. Henson said.

“They’re dominating the discourse,” he said. “Even if Dewhurst pulls this out, the fact that they made Dewhurst spend this much money as he did to remain competitive … tells you about just how much turmoil there is within the [Texas GOP] right now and how much dissatisfaction there is with the settled governing class within the Republican Party right now.”