One by one, several candidates hoping to be Texas’ next GOP Senate nominee made their pitches to the Republican Party’s forum in Erath County, just west of Fort Worth — but the few dozen voters packed inside the small meeting hall on a hot afternoon last week were getting antsy.
Then, 40 minutes late, Ted Cruz strolled in, grabbed the microphone and began to speak. This was what the rural central Texas crowd had come to see.
In a defiant yet amiable tone, Mr. Cruz, the charismatic former Texas solicitor general and son of a Cuban immigrant, fired up the crowd with calls to oust the “radical” Obama administration, eliciting sympathetic head bobs and a chorus of “uh-huhs.”
But Mr. Cruz, 41, has more than the president in his sights. For him, the battle for the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is the next test of whether tea party power, which exploded onto the political scene in 2010, can drive the political conversation again in 2012.
“This race has been called ground zero between the moderate establishment and the tea party tidal wave that swept the country” two years ago, Mr. Cruz said later that day in Dallas. “The stakes could not be higher.”
While nine Republicans are on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary for Texas’ open Senate seat, the race essentially is between two men; Mr. Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, 66, who has the backing of the state’s GOP establishment, including Gov. Rick Perry.
Mr. Dewhurst has seen a comfortable double-digit poll lead shrink in recent months. Results of a University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey released last week showed the lieutenant governor, a rancher and businessman with an estimated net worth of $200 million, with a 9 point advantage over Mr. Cruz.
Polling suggests neither man, nor any of the seven other hopefuls seeking the Republican nod, is likely to win an outright majority Tuesday, meaning the primary will extend to a July 31 runoff between the top two finishers.
For many Texas voters, the race is as much about denying the establishment its pick as it is about backing Mr. Cruz.
“I want Dewhurst defeated, and I think [Mr. Cruz] is the best choice for that,” said Gloriana Tadlock of Stephenville, Texas, moments after Monday’s candidate forum, which the lieutenant governor skipped. “Sometimes you vote in a direction so that you rally” the electorate.
A Texas Rubio?
Mr. Cruz has been likened to another tea party favorite, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents, like Mr. Cruz’s father, fled Cuba in the 1950s. The Florida Republican also challenged an establishment Republican, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, during his successful 2010 Senate bid.
Mr. Cruz says he is flattered by the comparison, but insists he’s more than just “Rubio 2.0,” though he acknowledges that, as with Mr. Rubio, his ideology was molded in part by the struggles and life experiences of his Cuban-born father.
He says he finds inspiration in Mr. Rubio’s 2010 victory, calling the Florida race the most important election in the country that year because it highlighted the rise of young Reaganite conservatives on Capitol Hill — including freshmen Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.