Tea Party Test in Texas Senate Primary

(Image Credit: LM Otero/AP Photo)

After a long, expensive and fiercely fought battle, the Texas GOP Senate primary will come to a close today, as voters cast ballots in the runoff between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Solicitor General Ted Cruz in a test for the Tea Party.

Dewhurst, 66, and Cruz, 41, are facing off for the second time in their race to win the GOP nomination for Senate in the open race to fill the seat left vacant by Kay Bailey Hutchison's retirement. The two men battled for the first time in the state's presidential and congressional primary May 29.

But Texas election code stipulates that a candidate must receive 50 percent or more of the vote in a primary in order to win the nomination outright, and both men failed to hit that mark among a crowded primary field in May.

Although Dewhurst held a solid lead over Cruz in the May primary - he finished with about 45 percent while Cruz received about 34 percent - recent polling has shown Cruz ahead. And while ultimately neither candidate's victory will change the outcome of the race in the end - the GOP nominee will be heavily favored to win the Senate race in November - a Cruz victory would be a big win for the Tea Party.

Dewhurst, the longtime lieutenant governor to Texas governor and Tea Party-star Rick Perry, is viewed as the "establishment" candidate in the race. Cruz, the state's first Hispanic solicitor general, is a rising Tea Party star. He has garnered support from national leaders affiliated with the movement, including Jim DeMint, Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin, all of whom turned out to campaign for Cruz this weekend.

Dewhurst is not lacking in conservative backings either. Perry and Mike Huckabee have both appeared in ads for the candidate, and he has received endorsements from prominent pro-life groups like Texans for Life. But Cruz and his supporters have questioned whether Dewhurst is indeed a "true conservative," citing compromises Dewhurst made with Democrats in the state legislature during his time as lieutenant Governor.

Judging by their records, and by the deeply red voter Demographic in Texas, it's highly likely that both men would be a dependable Republican vote in the Senate. Nevertheless, the symbolism of Cruz's outsider status, coupled with his prominent supporters, illustrates the boost to the movement his victory would bring.

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The Tea Party-affiliated candidates have had mixed results this election. There have been some notable victories like Richard Mourdock's defeating longtime Republican Sen. Dick Lugar in Indiana. But there have also been some failures like Dan Liljenquist's loss in Utah to longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch.

In addition to the Tea Party vs. establishment narrative, the other story line that has dominated the Texas GOP Senate race is the money raised and spent. The race is the most expensive Senate race in the country in terms of money spent, and the second-most expensive in terms of money raised so far (the Massachusetts Senate race has seen the most money raised), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Cruz and Dewhurst have spent a combined total of $26 million, $19 million of which has come from Dewhurst. Dewhurst has spent a lot of his own personal wealth on the race. The founder of a successful energy company, Falcon Seaboard, Dewhurst has poured $11 million from his own pocket. A lot of outside money has been spent on the race as well: about $13.5 million.

Democrats will hold a runoff today as well between former state Rep. Paul Sadler and Grady Yarbrough, a retired educator from San Antonio who came out of nowhere in the May primary and received 26 percent of the vote.

Taking place in the dead of summer, the run0ff is expected to generate a low turnout.