Texas Republicans head to the polls Tuesday to choose their nominee and, most likely, the state's next U.S. senator. Recent signs have pointed to momentum being on the side of former state Solicitor Gen. Ted Cruz, but Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's campaign remains confident, buoyed by the results of an internal poll from last week showing him clinging to a narrow lead.
The outcome of the race will have little effect on the battle for control of the Senate, as either Republican should cruise to victory in November. But the runoff still carries broad political implications. A Cruz win would represent the latest in a string of victories for anti-establishment candidates in GOP Senate primaries, falling in line with Richard Mourdock's defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana and Deb Fischer's surprise primary win in Nebraska.
Cruz began the race as a major underdog. A rising legal star, he was a virtual unknown in the political world, having never run for office. Dewhurst, on the other hand, has served as lieutenant governor for a decade. Deploying his great personal wealth, Dewhurst vastly outspent his opponents in the lead-up to the primary. While he outpaced Cruz by 11 points, he failed to win a majority, forcing the runoff.
Aided by his growing national profile and significant financial assistance from conservative groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund, Cruz has narrowed the spending gap during the runoff campaign. Thanks to two months of heightened press coverage and a steady stream of television ads, Cruz has joined Dewhurst in having near-universal name ID among the state's GOP voters.
An absence of reliable, independent polling in the race makes it difficult to describe the match-up as anything but a toss-up, though the momentum seems to be pointing in Cruz's direction. But here are four things to watch as the results start trickling in on Tuesday:
The One Million Dollar Question
: Both sides will keep a close eye on turnout. With Cruz's highly-motivated following a reliable bet to make it to the polls, the Dewhurst campaign would like to see as large a runoff electorate as possible. While both sides offer differing turnout predictions, they agree on one thing: For Dewhurst to win, he needs turnout to surpass 1 million votes. The Dewhurst camp will be more comfortable the higher that number grows past 1 million.
The Early Bird Special
: Dewhurst built up a huge lead in early voting during the primary. He outpaced Cruz among early voters by 18 points, while Cruz did much better on primary day, cutting Dewhurst's advantage to three points. When results from early voting are released Tuesday night, expect Dewhurst's sophisticated operation to have built a significant lead. If not, it could be a bad sign for the lieutenant governor's hopes.
The Surrogate Bounce
: Both campaigns brought out their big guns in the closing days of the campaign. A slew of national conservative stars, including Sarah Palin
, Rick Santorum
and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint
, traveled down to Texas to campaign on Cruz's behalf. The star-studded appearances generated lots of buzz in the Texas media, and the Cruz campaign is hoping to capitalize on that energy on Tuesday.
The Dewhurst camp has responded by arguing that Dewhurst is backed by Texas conservatives -- not the national ones stumping for Cruz. To that point, Dewhurst released a television ad
on Friday featuring Gov. Rick Perry
touting Dewhurst's conservative bona fides.
The new spot, along with a host of other Dewhurst ads, played in heavy rotation this weekend, thanks to another $8 million personal loan from Dewhurst in the last two weeks. While the primary took place the Tuesday following one of the worst weekends for television advertising all year, this past weekend was one of the best, thanks to the start of the Olympics
Both campaigns hope the late help from high-profile surrogates will boost their vote totals Tuesday.
All Eyes On Big D
: Keep an eye on the returns coming out of the Dallas area. The Dewhurst campaign has upped their television spending in the Dallas media market recently, as they push to win over voters who supported former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert
in the GOP primary. Leppert has endorsed Dewhurst in the runoff, and the two will be campaigning together on Monday in the Dallas area. The attention the Dewhurst campaign is paying to Dallas shows that they think the area is a must-win. Dewhurst supporters will be rooting for winning margins and high turnout in the four Dallas-area counties (Dallas, Tarrant, Denton and Collin).
But the Cruz campaign remains confident they can win Dallas, and the Cruz people are also confident they will post a strong showing in Harris (Houston), the state's biggest county.