David Dewhurst's political demise is being compared to a Greek tragedy, but it's more like a slow-motion car accident.
In 2012, Dewhurst was a multimillionaire, former CIA officer, founder of an energy and investments company, three-term lieutenant governor -- arguably Texas's most powerful politician -- and was looking to walk into an open U.S. Senate seat. Today, he's a guy who has lost a primary and then a runoff to a radio talk show host and who may never win another statewide race in Texas.
If you had predicted this change of fortune in January 2011, when a little-known Texan named Ted Cruz told bloggers on a conference call that he was going to try to give Dewhurst a run for his money, you would have been laughed out of Austin. But today, the lieutenant governor's decline and fall looks foreordained.
Dewhurst's team ran a TV attack ad in 2012 that plays a key role in the story. It ran before the state Republican convention and suggested Cruz -- then experiencing a grassroots-fueled apotheosis -- cared more about China than America. The ad shaded his skin yellow. Other Dewhurst communications, including email blasts and push cards, labeled him “Red Ted.”
Cruz supporters -- and by that point, there were a lot of them -- were exercised. So when Dewhurst described his campaign as positive during his 2012 Texas Republican Convention speech, delegates retorted with boos and “ON TO THE RUNOFF! TED CRUZ” signs. The crowd also booed Gov. Rick Perry when he praised Dewhurst. Perry later told reporters he thought they were chanting “Dew.” Dewhurst had peaked. Cruz beat him by 13 points.
The lieutenant governor didn't re-emerge on the national scene until about a year later. His circumstances were comparably bad: Another little-known Texan, state Sen. Wendy Davis, successfully filibustered a pro-life bill on his watch. The bill went on to pass in a special session, Davis went on to become a national pro-choice icon, and Dewhurst went on to wrangle some tricky PR problems.
Texas Republicans are split on just how much culpability goes to Dewhurst for Wendy Davis’ ascent. Should the lieutenant governor have kept the vote open when protesters were screaming? Should he have declared her out of order? Should he have anticipated the statehouse chaos and called for more security? The answers don’t really matter, because the perception that emerged in Texas conservative circles was that Dewhurst dithered during the preventable nascence of a potential Democratic superstar.
“He allowed her to become a national figure by not managing his position correctly in the eyes of most Republican activists,” said one Austin Republican consultant. “I think that probably has more to do with him losing than anything else he could have done.”
Jordan Berry, another consultant, echoed that.
“You disqualify yourself from being able to be in charge,” he said.
Dan Patrick, who defeated Dewhurst in the May 27 runoff for lieutenant governor, announced he would challenge the incumbent shortly after Davis' filibuster. He chalked up her success to “a lack of leadership.”
Davis' gubernatorial candidacy means the Republican nominee, Attorney General Greg Abbott, will have a competitive, expensive race. One consultant said he expects Democrats to spend $50 million on the contest, and added that Abbott will have to spend tens of millions to counter that. That's money the nominee can't spend to help down-ballot Republicans or invest in other causes. The consultant's conclusion? Dewhurst cost Lone Star State Republicans tens of millions of dollars. That perception -- true or false -- didn't help him any.
And a negative-campaigning swan song just before the runoff doesn’t seem to have helped, either. When state Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Dewhurst backer, leaked documents about Patrick’s mental health, conservative activists got a flashback to the “Red Ted” campaign line. An Austin political insider said activists were infuriated. The leak had made the race personal.
On top of all that, Dewhurst never won big on style. One consultant described him as “the ultimate example of a country club Republican.” And state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, who backed Patrick, suggested voters were angling for someone more like Cruz and less like Clifton Webb.
“I don’t hear people talk about electability as much anymore,” Stickland said. “What I hear people talk about is, 'Who’s going to get there and fight for me? We don’t care if people win or lose; we care if they fight.' ”
For many Republican runoff voters, voting against Dewhurst just felt natural.
“In my opinion," said a Texas Republican consultant, "it was a guaranteed loss when they filed for re-election.”