One of the most expensive and bitter intraparty political battles in Texas history is almost over, as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and tea party insurgent Ted Cruz face off Tuesday in a GOP runoff election to make the ballot for the state's open Senate seat.
And while the contest has drawn big-time interest — and money — from across the nation, it also stands to tilt the GOP political compass in the Lone Star State and beyond.
More outside cash — $14.1 million — has flowed into the race than any in the nation this election cycle with the exception of the presidential contest, says OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks money in politics. That's almost three times as much as the third-most-expensive race, the Indiana U.S. Senate contest, in terms of outside money.
Outside groups, such as political action committees, or PACs, and so called super PACs, have spent about $7.6 million on campaign efforts to either support Mr. Cruz or attack Mr. Dewhurst. An astounding $2.2 million of that amount poured into the contest the past week or so.
More than $5.2 million has been spent supporting Mr. Dewhurst or attacking his rival, with about $621,000 coming in the campaign's final days.
About $558,000 was spent supporting or opposing other candidates knocked out in the May primary.
The biggest outside spenders are Club for Growth Action, which has spent about $5.5 million to try to push Mr. Cruz to victory, and the pro-Dewhurst Texas Conservatives Fund, which has doled out about $5.2 million to attack the tea party favorite.
The race isn't close to being the most expensive in national history. The 2000 New York Senate race won by now-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cost a total of $90 million. In 2010, Senate candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut spent about $50 million from her own fortune on a failed attempt to win a Senate seat in 2010.
The spending in Texas this year should trail off significantly after the runoff, meaning other races nationwide could catch up. The GOP runoff victor will face the winner of Tuesday's Democratic runoff between Grady Yarbrough and Paul Sadler, but that winner will have a huge cash disadvantage and be a colossal underdog come November in the Republican-dominated state.
But as for outside spending, the 2012 race for Texas' open seat — created by the retirement of four-term incumbent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — so far is the most expensive in U.S. history, OpenSecrets.org says.
Several factors have contributed to the race's hyper spending pace.
Laws regarding campaign contributions loosened after the Supreme Court's 2010 "Citizens United" decision that struck down most limits on corporate and union spending in elections. And running for statewide office isn't cheap in Texas, which includes about 20 media markets.
The spending race also was ginned up due to Mr. Dewhurst's personal fortune, which, at $200 million, meant that any serious opponent would have to raise big bucks to stay competitive.
Republicans across the country view the race as the latest — and perhaps most important — skirmish in the internal war over the philosophical direction of the party with deep-pocket conservative groups eager to influence its outcome.
Mr. Dewhurst has the backing of the state's establishment figures, including Gov. Rick Perry, while Mr. Cruz has been endorsed by former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and a group of conservative GOP senators, including tea party hero Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
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."
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