May 28, 2014, 02:45 pm
Is it Ted Cruz’s Texas now?
By Jessica Taylor
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wasn’t up for reelection this year, but his presence was felt up and down the GOP primary ballot in the Lone Star State.
The only candidate Cruz endorsed won her primary fight on Tuesday, while incumbent candidates he ignored went down to defeat.
More generally, the upstart candidates who toppled Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst and 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall appealed to the same state conservatives who see Cruz as a hero.
“[Cruz] provided a playbook for conservative candidates to overcome the establishment,” said Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, who advised John Ratcliffe’s campaign, who beat Hall. “In every race, there was a Cruz dynamic.”
“He showed that if you raise enough money to be competitive, and if you run a good campaign and really mobilize the conservative base in Texas, that it can be done,” Mackowiak continued.
Cruz’s influence is also shaping state races that will influence Texas politics for years to come.
Tea Party activist Konni Burton, the only candidate Cruz endorsed, won the GOP nomination for state Senate in the race to replace state Sen. Wendy Davis (D).
Observers also credit Cruz for GOP Attorney General nominee Ken Paxton’s rise.
In what several saw as a choreographed move, earlier this year Cruz offered glowing praise for Paxton, a conservative state senator.
The Paxton campaign’s cameras caught the speech and quickly turned it into a TV ad, making it look like he had Cruz’s endorsement even if it wasn't official. That helped vault him from third place into first in the battle for the GOP nomination, and on Tuesday he won the runoff.
Longtime Texas GOP observers have noticed the sea change, too. They say the grassroots now controls the GOP.
“Things certainly have changed. The conservative grassroots activists have come to dominate the party establishment, offsetting or pushing aside some of the more traditional business/donor community,” said Texas Republican strategist Ray Sullivan, a former top aide to both Gov. Rick Perry and former President George W. Bush.
Sullivan said grassroots groups are much more organized and unified than in the past. They can also depend on help from national groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth.
“The conservative factions largely within Tea Party brands have become very well organized and have a significant amount of influence in Republican primary elections,” he added.
The Cruz name isn’t a silver bullet.
Cruz’s father, Rafel, has become another big draw, but his endorsement didn’t help Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson beat powerful Rep. Pete Sessions (R) in the March primary.
She was underfunded and, as some observers note, may have reached too far in her first bid for office. Sessions ran a well-funded, disciplined campaign and was easily renominated.
Sen. John Cornyn was another member of GOP leadership who initially seemed ripe for an upset. Instead, he never attracted a serious challenger.
Still, some say Cornyn has changed since Cruz arrived in Washington, which would be another testament to how he is changing his state’s political leadership.
Cornyn moved to polish his conservative credentials and became more intractable on areas he once reached across the aisle on, such as immigration, as his primary approached.
Texas Democrats are all too happy to point to the trend, hoping a GOP that’s lurching further right in a state that is becoming more Hispanic could further help their party.
Cruz is the bogeyman they point to.
“The days of a pragmatic Texas Republican Party are over,” Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Emmanuel Garcia said in a statement Tuesday night.
He tied Cruz to state Sen. Dan Patrick, the conservative who defeated Dewhurst on Tuesday night.
“U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Dan Patrick have driven their party so far off the ideological cliff there is no room balance and common-sense,” he said.
Patrick’s win sets up an initial test on whether Cruz is actually hurting the Texas GOP.
Democrats hope their nominee, Texas state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, will have a better shot now to win the lieutenant governorship this November.
They’re also hopeful that Davis, who rose to prominence with her abortion filibuster last year, can win the governorship. But they are more optimistic about defeating Patrick.
Republicans say they’re not worried, and that even if the state has taken a rightward lurch, it won’t be enough for Democrats.
“Democrats get their clock cleaned every cycle. Eventually, they will be more competitive, but I don’t see it on the horizon,” said Sullivan.