In Utah last month, a man went on a five-day hunger strike to force a televised debate between Sen. Orrin Hath (R) and his tea party challenger, Dan Liljenquist, before June 26. He gave up after his friends and family begged him not to let his health deteriorate for a lost cause.
In Texas, where another tea party challenger is taking on a so-called “establishment” Republican in a summer primary, such dramatics were not necessary. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst accepted tea party-backed Ted Cruz’s call for five televised debates just hours after Cruz issued the challenge — the same night he shocked Dewhurst by forcing him into a July 31 runoff.
The differing debate strategies — Hatch’s refusal to meet his opponent on stage and Dewhurst’s eagerness to face Cruz — are a window into the factors separating the summer’s biggest tea party vs. establishment fights. Tea partiers see Hatch and Dewhurst as the wrong men to help lead the Senate into the era of conservative purity — a goal over which groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks and their like-minded supporters are salivating. Liljenquist and Cruz both surprised powerful establishment machinery by forcing their opponents into elections to take place during the low-turnout dog days of summer, which could potentially propel the conservative candidates to victory if turnout is fueled by activist tea party supporters.
And yet Hatch is able to run a very different campaign from Dewhurst, focusing less on directly engaging Liljenquist than the Texan is on Cruz and instead hunkering down for what observers still expect will be a win. Of the two establishment favorites, Hatch is an incumbent with a decades-long Washington voting record for tea partiers to attack. Dewhurst is a powerful Texas politician, but is running for an open seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R).
Ironically, it’s that Washington voting record that’s put Hatch where he is today. While tea party groups spend millions to pummel Dewhurst and support Cruz’s insurgent candidacy, they’ve largely steered clear of Hatch, who’s spent the last year cozying up to the tea party wing of the GOP, which successfully ousted Hatch’s colleague Sen. Bob Bennett (R) in Utah in 2010.
Hatch’s courtship of the right — which included voting in the Senate “to the right of [Sen.] Jim DeMint [R-SC],” as the president of the Club for Growth recently put it — reached its zenith last month when Sarah Palin broke with much of the rest of the tea-party wing and threw her full support behind the senator.
Hatch’s efforts have meant the big, national conservative groups making life so hard for Dewhurst are staying out of Hatch’s way so far. An operative involved in the national efforts to push establishment Republicans aside told TPM it’s possible national money will flow in Utah before the primary, but there are no plans for that to happen yet largely thanks to Hatch’s tea party firewall.
“Hatch saw what happened to Bob Bennett two years ago right in his backyard and he took steps to make sure that he didn’t turn into Dick Lugar,” the operative said. There remain plenty of national conservatives who don’t like Hatch and aren’t afraid to vocalize it, but for the most part he seems to have appeased the purity police on the far right.
Dewhurst is not so lucky. A Texas political observer told TPM that the nature of the Dewhurst-Cruz battle makes it a purely national fight. Cruz lacks the kind of local issue over which to attack Dewhurst the way insurgent Richard Mourdock attached Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar over his residency issues, which he harnessed to paint Lugar as an absentee senator.
Cruz also lacks a sizable political base of his own in Texas. That means the summer fight will more than likely be about the national split in the GOP, with tea party groups continuing to spend millions to paint Dewhurst as a tool of the party establishment. Though Dewhurst beat Cruz by 11 percent in the primary race that led to the July 31 runoff, he is taking a more aggressive tack than Hatch. He has engaged Cruz directly and pushed back on the idea that Cruz is the true carrier of the tea party banner.
That’s why Dewhurst is ready to take the stage with Cruz, while Hatch ignores a hunger strike and avoids Liljenquist. For Hatch, the rest of the election is about staying under the radar now that he’s proven himself worthy to some of the tea party’s leaders. For Dewhurst, it’s about painting a new picture of himself to voters to replace the tea party’s characterization of him. On election night, when Cruz deprived him of the outright nomination, Dewhurst said he’s ready to get down in the trenches.
“Make no mistake, Mr. Cruz. I’m a fighter,” Dewhurst said. “I will fight for every single vote. And I’m going to win this U.S. Senate race.”