Texas Politics

Dewhurst capsized by the perfect storm



There is irony in David Dewhurst’s loss to political unknown Ted Cruz in the July 31 Republican Senate runoff. Dewhurst presided over what led to his defeat.

Congressional redistricting, which Dewhurst presided over in the Texas Senate as lieutenant governor, caused the lawsuit that postponed the primaries from March 6 – which Dewhurst was expected to win without a runoff — to May 29.

That gave Cruz 13 more weeks to build his name identification, to talk to every conservative group that he could, and for his Super PAC backers to attack Dewhurst.

Dewhurst could have heeded the warnings of Democratic senators about the federal Voting Rights Act. He could have made sure new congressional districts actually represented the minority groups whose population growth was a big part of Texas earning four new congressional seats. If the plan hadn’t been rigged to overly benefit Republicans, it might never have gotten any traction in the courts. But a three-judge federal court threw out the Legislature drawn plan and drew its own interim map. The Supreme Court agreed the Legislature’s map had some problems, but instructed the three judges to draw a map that more closely resembled the Legislature’s.

By the time that dust cleared, Cruz had built enough momentum to get a third of the vote. Dewhurst fell a few points short of a majority. And the July 31 runoff gave Cruz another nine weeks.

Meantime, The Dew, as some senators call him when he’s not in the room, prior to the first primary had taken a page from Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign book. He spurned invites to meet with newspaper editorial boards and passed on almost all debate requests.

Incumbents are often reluctant to debate, for fear of giving their challengers an equal platform. But Dewhurst wasn’t an incumbent senator. Stiffing the editorial boards was because their questions probably would be ones he’d rather not answer — like, what’s conservative about cutting public education $4.5 billion? Also, The Dew’s successful strategy so far, beginning in 1998 for Land Commissioner, has been that “my personal wealth is so enormous I’ll just buy the publicity I need. Let them eat TV ads, and I’ll control my message.”

But, that approach backfired. His failure to appear before groups had allowed Cruz to tell the GOP grass roots groups that Dewhurst was ignoring them, taking them for granted.

In the runoff, a spooked Dewhurst started accepting debates and joint appearances.

Also, Dewhurst banked on Rick Perry and his campaign staff as his emergency parachute, which he tightly strapped on.

Problem was, Perry political consultant Dave Carney of New Hampshire packed the parachute. It malfunctioned. And with Perry’s endorsement of Dewhurst following his presidential flameout, the parachute might as well have been made of lead.

Dewhurst’s dilemma resembled Hillary Clinton’s in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary against political upstart Barack Obama.

When her husband Bill had run for president in 1992, he was the change agent. When she ran 16 years later, after eight years of Bill’s presidency and eight more of Hillary in the U.S. Senate, she was The Establishment; Barack Obama was the New Blood.

Perry’s anti-Washington theme worked when his 2010 primary opponent was 15- year incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

For Dewhurst in 2012, after being in statewide office for 13 years, facing someone who’s never run for political office, it’s uphill to present yourself as a government outsider. You are the government.

And then there’s money. The Dew, with a fortune estimated at north of $200 million, was accustomed to bluffing or bullying opponents out of the way, or burying them with it if they did run.

This time around, as the runoff progressed, The Dew loaned his campaign $24.5 million.

That all those TV ads weren’t enough this time was due to several factors – including that Cruz developed a genuine grassroots following, which the aloof Dewhurst never has.

And, Dewhurst’s ads featuring him can’t cover up that he’s basically a cold fish. Conveying warmth and sincerity is not his strong suit.

Another problem was that the emergence of Super PACs, with corporations and individuals able to spend unlimited money without much scrutiny, undercut The Dew’s normal financial advantage.

And, a good bit of the TV ads attacking Cruz probably built Cruz’s name identification as much as Cruz’s own ads.

Where The Dew’s political future leads is anyone’s guess. But in the short term, expect him to continue as lieutenant governor; his term lasts until January of 2015.

At a post-runoff meeting of the Legislative Budget Board, he said he’s “focusing exclusively on this next session” – the biennial regular legislative session that begins early next year.

But his sticking around will also give those hoping for leverage in the Texas capitol an opportunity to help pay Dewhurst back the millions he loaned his failed Senate campaign.

DAVE MCNEELY is political columnist. You may contact him at davemcneely111@gmail.com or (512)458-2963.

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