Tea Party in Texas Energized After Lugar Defeat, Palin Endorsement

Texas Tea Party conservatives say they’re riding high ahead of the May 29th primary for several reasons, including this week’s ouster of moderate Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar and a big-name endorsement for their preferred candidate in the race to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Thursday’s announcement by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin that she’s endorsing Ted Cruz was touted by his supporters as a turning point in a race that’s turned nasty in recent weeks.

Katrina Pierson, a Cruz supporter and co-founder of the Dallas Tea Party, said the Palin endorsement reinforces the idea that this race has become a national rallying point for “movement conservatives.”

“I was beside myself when I heard the announcement.  Everybody knows she’s an icon,” Pierson said. In her opinion, the media has unfairly focused on low turnout at recent Tea Party events. “We’re not doing big rallies anymore, like we were two years ago, because now we’re blogging, block walking, and doing the things it really takes to get our candidates elected,” Pierson said.

Cruz, a former Texas Solicitor General and appellate lawyer, hopes to force a runoff between himself and frontrunner Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.  For a runoff to be necessary, Dewhurst would have to fail to get at least 50 percent of the vote in the primary.

Former ESPN football analyst Craig James and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert are also running.  But, neither has gained enough traction to be considered contenders, analysts said. That’s despite Leppert’s campaign spending about $3.5 million for political ads that attempt to portray him as above the fray.

Over the last few weeks, Dewhurst’s campaign has run a series of negative ads linking Cruz to a Chinese tire manufacturer that was held liable for theft of intellectual property.  Some political observers said those ads are a double-edged sword for Dewhurst, because voters who previously knew nothing about Cruz now at least know he’s in the race.

Dewhurst has spent about $8 million, largely from his own fortune, on radio and television ads.

Club for Growth, a national conservative group, announced this week it would spend $1 million to criticize Dewhurst as a “moderate, tax-raising” politician.  The same group also spent more than $1 million to help a Tea Party candidate win the race against Sen. Lugar in Indiana.

Dewhurst supporters like Kyleen Wright, who heads up the prominent anti-abortion group Texans for Life, said Club for Growth’s commitment to target Dewhurst shows Cruz is getting help from deep-pocketed groups who don’t care about what’s good for Texas.

“It really pains me to think that big-money interests from out of state might deceive so many people and have a big role in this race,” Wright said. “What I see (in Dewhurst) is somebody who is a thinking officeholder and someone who is not beholden to one particular group.”

Rice University Political Scientist Mark Jones said the negative ads run by Dewhurst “are sort of effective, but you wonder if that’s all they could come up with?”

Jones and other experts estimate that no more than about 750,000 people would vote in a runoff, so spending large amounts of money on over-the-air advertisements might not be the most effective way to use campaign dollars. Appearances on conservative talk radio programs and outreach through social media like Twitter and Facebook might be better ways to target those potential voters at a fraction of the cost, analysts said.

As far as who would be the best senator, Jones said voters have a clear choice to make between two very different philosophies.

“You have someone running as an establishment conservative in Dewhurst versus a movement conservative in Ted Cruz,” Jones said.  “For example, if you’re an establishment conservative, the way you deal with overreach by the Environmental Protection Agency is to try to rein it in.  If you’re a movement conservative, you just try to abolish the agency.”

Joe Householder, a Democratic consultant at a firm called Purple Strategies in Houston, said a runoff would be the most dangerous territory for Dewhurst. He said the negative ads being run now by Dewhurst’s campaign indicate the frontrunner is feeling the heat.  “It is an attempt to avoid a runoff,” Householder said.

The kind of voters who would be the most likely to be aligned with Cruz are committed to voting in every election, including runoffs, Householder said. “They’re the type who drives by their school every weekend looking for ‘vote here’ signs to make sure they didn’t miss an election.”

Householder also said Tea Party supporters of Cruz shouldn’t be too encouraged by the loss of Sen. Lugar in Indiana. “The races are very different. Lugar was seen as really out of touch with average people in Indiana. Dewhurst has a team working for him that knows he’s in a tough fight and they know how to fight it,” Householder said.

Pierson, the Tea Party leader from Dallas, said Cruz supporters shouldn’t feel discouraged if the Lt. Governor is victorious.

“If Dewhurst makes it without a runoff, then we still deserve a lot of credit because he had a real challenger in the first place,” Pierson said.  “My skin just starts moving when I think about a runoff,” she said.

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