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Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst testifies on Capitol Hill September 23, 2008. Dewhurst was defeated last week by Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz in a run-off election to be the Texas Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst testifies on Capitol Hill September 23, 2008. Dewhurst was defeated last week by Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz in a run-off election to be the Texas Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent to The New Republic.
The holy crusade that movement conservatives undertook against Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst concluded with Tuesday's Senate runoff, producing his once-unlikely defeat at the hands of his much-celebrated Tea Party challenger, former state solicitor general Ted Cruz. What makes the election so interesting is that Dewhurst, who has been denounced from one end of the conservative blogosphere to the other as a "RINO" and as "Dewcrist," can't really be accused of any specific ideological heresies. Unlike Indiana's Dick Lugar, he hasn't supported any arms control treaties or gun control measures or "earmarks." Unlike many of 2010's Tea Party targets, he can't be accused of social-issues moderation; he was staunchly supported by Texas' main anti-abortion groups. And unlike Orrin Hatch of Utah, he hasn't thumbed his nose at ultra-conservatives; he calls himself a "constitutional conservative," says he supported Tea Party policies before there was a Tea Party, and heavily identifies himself with his most important backer, Gov. Rick Perry, who can snarl and rant at godless liberals with the best of them.
This did not keep Cruz's backers from calling Dewhurst names, of course. But when challenged, they always seemed to find some objection to Dewhurst that did not involve any actual issues. RedState's Erick Erickson scoffed at the very idea that Dewhurst was a real conservative, but relied mainly on the two candidates' lists of supporters to establish some distinction between them. National Review's editors focused on Dewhurst's negative ads against Cruz, another non-ideological factor.
In explaining this odd "purge," Slate's David Weigel believes it's all pretty simple: Texas is a safe state for an intra-party bloodbath (the Democratic Senate nominee is virtually unknown and penniless) and Cruz is young and Hispanic at a time when conservatives are battening down the hatches for a long-term struggle against demographic tides that doom any party relying on today's old-white-people GOP "base." They're naturally very interested in building a bench of younger minority pols who show not an ounce of ideological moderation. Cruz quite possibly represents a Hispanic insurance policy in case his better-established fellow Cuban-American conservative, Marco Rubio, falters (as he well might thanks to his questionable associations in South Florida and his own shaky personal financial history.) Just as importantly, the uprising against Dewhurst became something of an end in itself: a test of the power of movement-conservative elements of the GOP that failed to unite behind a presidential candidate, and are determined to surround Mitt Romney — if he is elected president — with as many ideological commissars as possible.
But regardless of the inner motives of the vast array of right-wing groups and celebrities backing Cruz (and he's got just about all of them, from Palin and DeMint to the Club for Growth to Eagle Forum to the major Tea Party organizations), a Cruz victory will have an independent impact on perceptions of the future direction of the GOP and the conservative movement. And since the closest thing to "moderation" Dewhurst can be accused of is the occasional willingness to negotiate with Democrats in the Texas legislature, a Cruz win, particularly if it's big, will be widely interpreted as a warning to congressional Republicans against anything other than hard-core, no-compromise, let-the-economy-go-to-hell positioning on all the upcoming fiscal battles — and, in the event Barack Obama is re-elected, a continuation or even intensification of the war to end all partisan wars in Washington.
It's true that Cruz (like Rubio, a Florida House speaker and protégé of Jeb Bush before he was adopted by the Tea Party and deposed Charlie Crist) has his own "Washington Establishment" background, as a Justice Department attorney during the Bush administration. But it's hard to imagine him defying the powerful ideologues that validated him as a viable challenger (with some inadvertent assistance from the Texas legislature's decision — driven by uncertainty over judicial review of its redistricting plan — to create an unusually long runoff campaign between the May primary and the July runoff) and kept him financially competitive with Dewhurst's deep pockets. The Club for Growth alone poured more than five million dollars into Cruz's campaign. He is very unlikely to bite the hands that fed him, and those hands have been significantly strengthened by his victory.