Ted Cruz, the Texas Senate Primary, and the Undead Tea Party

His crushing victory over establishment candidate David Dewhurst shows that the movement remains a potent force.

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Ted Cruz, left, and David Dewhurst at a June 22 debate. (Associated Press)

Updated August 1

Time and again, the Tea Party has been declared moribund, splintered, and ineffective. And time and again, it has pulled off surprising upsets. The insurgent conservative moment won a significant victory Tuesday in Texas, where attorney Ted Cruz scored a stunning 13-point win over David Dewhurst in a Republican primary for the state's open U.S. Senate seat. The margin of victory exceeded even recent polls that showed Cruz leading by around 10 points.

Back in May, when Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock knocked longtime Senator Richard Lugar in the Indiana GOP primary, it seemed certain that Lugar would be the Tea Party's only major establishment scalp in the 2012 cycle. But the terrain has turned topsy-turvy and trends Tea-ward once again.

Cruz's resurgence was surprising for many reasons. Dewhurst, the current lieutenant governor, has the support of the state's powerful Republican establishment, including Gov. Rick Perry -- himself a Tea Party figurehead. Dewhurst has outspent Cruz nearly 3-to-1, even though major outside groups like FreedomWorks have backed Cruz. Dewhurst also had the benefit of a large personal fortune to aid him. Whether there are significant policy differences between the candidates is a matter of some debate. The New York Times noted, "The two candidates differ little on major issues -- both call for repealing Obama's health care law, balancing the budget, abolishing the Department of Education and ending abortion." But Dewhurst skeptics contended that he has been too willing to compromise with Democrats. As for Cruz, he was endorsed by the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, but he hardly fits the stereotype of the Tea Partier as a homespun, flyover country conservative. A former state solicitor general, Cruz attended Harvard Law School, clerked for late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and has argued before the nation's highest court nine times, more than any current member of Congress.

Given his 14 years of prominence in state politics, it was long assumed that that Dewhurst would romp. But the momentum shifted in dramatic fashion in late May, when Cruz earned 32 percent of the vote in the first round of voting, a three-way primary, to deprive Dewhurst of the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. After that, Cruz was off and running, rapidly gaining ground. Dave Weigel notes that a fluke of election scheduling gave Cruz nearly two months until the runoff, a remarkable benefit for an insurgent campaign.

From a Senate control standpoint, the race is likely to have little impact -- barring unforeseen catastrophe, Republicans will hold the seat being vacated by the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison regardless of who wins. (Dewhurst's loss is however, a major defeat for Perry.) But Cruz's last-minute dash illustrates three important points about where the Tea Party stands in summer 2012. First, don't count any Tea Party contender out until the election day. Take Deb Fischer, who came from almost nowhere to beat Jon Bruning in the Republican primary in Nebraska. In both Fischer and Cruz's case, the smart money fled when the candidates didn't seem to be getting a toehold one and two months out. But grassroots organization eventually pulled them up late in the game.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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