If you never thought Ted Cruz would get the Republican nomination to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the United States Senate, you're in good company.
"Going back eight months, if you'd have asked me if Cruz had a prayer, I'd have said 'Heck no.' He was at 2 percent and the margin of error was 3 percent," said Republican Austinite Chris Perkins. The difference between you and Perkins, though, is that he is Cruz's pollster and knows exactly how David Dewhurst went from measuring curtains in the Russell Senate Office Building to sheepishly preparing for the 2013 legislative session.
Washington might interpret Cruz' win as another victory for Tea Party conservatism, but Perkins points to a question in his polling that shows this race had less to do with ideology than with insiders and outsiders.
"Ted Cruz understands politicians from both parties have let us down. Cruz is a proven conservative that will reduce the size of government and defend the constitution," read the poll question that took Cruz from 2 percent in initial polling to the GOP Senate nomination.
Perkins' polling discovered that Dewhurst could not sell his record of cutting spending and taxes to an angry Republican primary electorate that didn't believe the Republican establishment had cut spending or taxes. Talking about Dewhurst's record barely moved the needle and only succeeded in cementing him as a member of the hated establishment.
"The movement was minimal compared to, 'I'm the outsider,'" said Perkins. "It worked so much better. He wants to say Cruz hasn't done anything. The voters don't think you have either. That's the Dew."
It must have driven Dewhurst and his consultants crazy. Dewhurst had a long record of conservative legislative wins and all the money in the world to tell the story. He even had universal name ID with Republican primary voters, but what he didn't have, said Perkins, was an emotional bond with them or a signature issue he could hang his hat on.
"Dewhurst's problem is that he never really endeared himself to Republican primary voters," said Perkins.
When Perry's team took over Dewhurst's campaign, they made the time-honored mistake of fighting the last war by trying to turn the runoff into a sequel of the 2010 Perry-Hutchison race. The anti-Washington attacks didn't stick to the new kid. "That's hard to do the way you can against Kay," said Perkins. "Kay was a creature of Washington."
Conventional wisdom in Austin is that Dewhurst's attacks on Cruz for representing a Chinese company against an American businessman boosted his rival's name ID. Perkins did a regression analysis of the China hit and found that while it raised Cruz's negative ratings, it also raised his name ID without affecting his ballot position. "China was going to stick, and it did, but it was never going to move the ballot," said Perkins.
Cruz's ethnicity split the nearly all-white Republican primary and runoff electorates, said Perkins. Republicans with Latino surnames don't do well in Republican primaries even when they outspend their rivals with Anglo names by huge margins. But Perkins points out that it's a different story in runoffs where the electorate is, he said, "smarter."
"The runoff electorate consumes information better," Perkins said, meaning that hyper-engaged partisan voters are better able to judge candidates on the contents of their platforms and records.
Polling showed that Dewhurst did have a solid base among elderly Republicans. Voters above 75 years of age were "solidly with Dew" while Republicans "55 and younger are absolutely and outrageously with Cruz," said Perkins. "There was clearly a generational gap."
Cruz's win brings another generational change to the Texas political economy, elevating his general consultant Jason Johnson into the top tier of Texas Republican advisers with John Cornyn's Todd Olsen and Rick Perry's Dave Carney. Meanwhile, Perkins, who says his last internal poll had Cruz up 15 percent, has moved into at least parity with Dewhurst's Mike Baselice, who released an internal poll last week showing his guy up 5 percent. With key figures in Perry's team moving on to other statewide officeholders, the consulting scene on the Republican side is in flux. The 5-star recruit is Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has a 10-figure bank account but no political strategist on retainer as he considers a run for higher office.
And what next for Dewhurst, his right flank exposed? The best he could hope for is to stay lieutenant governor, say some Republican operatives privately.