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Texas voters will pick a new U.S. senator this fall to replace retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Both parties will pick their nominees in runoff elections Tuesday. The bigger race by far is for the Republican nomination.
From member station KUT in Austin, Ben Philpott reports that millions of dollars have been spent in that race and conventional political wisdom turned on its head.
BEN PHILPOTT, BYLINE: This wasn't supposed to be a heated primary battle. Rather more of a coronation for Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. He's run the Texas Senate for the last decade, has a vast personal fortune to spend on the race, and was the favorite of just about every establishment Republican in the state, including Governor Rick Perry in this political ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: David is the one candidate best prepared to make conservative change happen in Washington. Don't let anyone tell you different.
PHILPOTT: Dewhurst's opponent on tomorrow's ballot is former State Solicitor General Ted Cruz. He told NPR that when he entered the race, Dewhurst seemed unbeatable.
TED CRUZ: You know, when we started this campaign a year and a half ago, there wasn't anybody in the state that thought I had a prayer. I was at 2 percent in the polls and the margin of error was 3 percent.
PHILPOTT: And if the election had been held in March - Texas's traditional primary month - Many believe Dewhurst would have easily gotten the 50 percent needed to win the GOP primary without a runoff. But thanks to a lawsuit over legislative redistricting, the primary was pushed back to late May. A move that Republican strategist Ted Delisi says changed the race.
TED DELISI: I think there was always a potential for a competitive race, but it has become very competitive. And the reason for that is that the non-Dewhurst candidates, and in this case Ted Cruz, had had the time to make their case.
PHILPOTT: Time for Cruz to meet more voters, time to build his name ID across the gigantic state.
Will Lutz is former editor of a prominent Texas conservative newsletter. He says Cruz didn't have time to meet every voter but he did the next best thing.
WILL LUTZ: What Ted Cruz did is for the past year and a half at least, he's been going to every conservative and Republican group that would listen to him. He has a stump speech that those audiences find attractive.
PHILPOTT: Cruz gradually moved up in the polls. In a crowded primary, he was able to solidify the anti-Dewhurst vote. Then came a late endorsement from Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin. And finally, the Washington, D.C. based conservative group Club for Growth spent about two and a half million dollars on attack ads.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dewhurst backed wasteful earmarks and pushed for new wage taxes and a statewide property tax. Big spending-tax-raising David Dewhurst, wrong for Texas.
PHILPOTT: That ad support coupled with Cruz's emphasis on reaching out to conservative bloggers and activists across the country, gave him national attention. Something that Lutz says dramatically affected Cruz's fundraising efforts.
LUTZ: You will see people from all over the country giving money to Ted Cruz. He has made a splash in national conservative circles. I mean, being on the cover of National Review magazine, which is a conservative commentary publication, is a real coup for somebody running for office in one state.
PHILPOTT: All that - the money the endorsements and the extra time to campaign - led to a second place finish in the May primary. Cruz only got 34 percent of the vote. But his supporters are mostly from the grassroots/activists/Tea Party branch of the GOP. And neither rain nor sleet nor July Texas heat will keep those voters from the polls.
The Dewhurst campaign has failed to generate the same emotional fire. In an interview, Dewhurst said that means calling as many people as possible to make sure his supporters don't skip the runoff.
LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR DAVID DEWHURST: We have polled and polled and there are substantially more David Dewhurst voters in Texas that we've been able to identify than Ted Cruz voters. But again, it's a question of turnout.
PHILPOTT: Recent polling shows Cruz has the momentum and he spent the weekend trying to build on it. Campaigning with Sarah Palin, as well as former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Cruz said tomorrow's contest will prove whether the conservative grassroots matter.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Philpott in Austin.