Rafael "Ted" Cruz, a tea party candidate running for U.S. Senate… (Molly Hennessy-Fiske,…)
TYLER, Texas — Disillusioned with the regular cast of Lone Star State conservatives, a tea party crowd of about 400 gathered at Lakeview Church of the Nazarene and paid rapt attention to the man campaigning to be their next senator.
"Do the grass roots matter? This race is a test," Rafael "Ted" Cruz told the applauding crowd as he prepared for a July 31 runoff against fellow Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. "The Republican establishment has circled their wagons around David Dewhurst."
Cruz, 41, has been likened to Marco Rubio, another young Cuban American and tea party star who entered the Senate last year after beating moderate Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.
Cruz has been endorsed by Sean Hannity, Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin. Like Rubio, Cruz sells himself as a fighter up against not just President Obama but a spendthrift Republican establishment — including Dewhurst, 66.
In recent Senate primaries, tea party favorites defeated GOP incumbents in Indiana and Nebraska. Will Texas follow suit?
"There are whole counties in Texas, some up by Dallas or in rural areas, where the tea party dominates, but they haven't taken over," said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "It will be an interesting test of the tea party, given the civil war going on in the Republican Party right now."
Cruz's father is an immigrant who settled in the Houston area, where Cruz attended high school. He went to Princeton University, where he competed in college debate tournaments before attending Harvard Law School. After graduating and clerking for U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Cruz returned home to serve as Texas solicitor general.
At the recent Tyler gathering, Cruz charmed J. Ashton Oravetz, 68, a retired community college finance professor who leads the county's Republican Party and helped organize the event with a local tea party group called Grassroots America — We The People.
Before the event, he and Cruz met with local businessmen, including some former Dewhurst supporters. Oravetz said they considered Dewhurst "a compromiser," and that electing Cruz would send a powerful message to conservative leaders.
"It will terrify Texas and Washington," he said, grinning.
In the May primary, Cruz captured 34% of the vote, which helped force Dewhurst, with 45% of votes cast, into the runoff.
Cruz bragged in Tyler that he and Dewhurst had raised about the same amount of money before the primary, but that he had relied more on grass-roots donors.
Cruz also garnered significant out-of-state support from conservative "super PACs," including $2.5 million from the Washington-based Club for Growth.
But that's a pittance compared with the deep pockets of Dewhurst, who runs an energy company on the side, has an estimated net worth of $200 million and support from in-state super PACs. Overall, he leads Cruz in fundraising $18.4 million to $5.8 million.
The candidates have similar takes on most issues: both promise to repeal Obama's healthcare law, secure the border and lower taxes. With little to fight over besides who will cut taxes more, both have turned to personal attacks.
Most experts agree the candidates' first televised debate last month was a draw — which, given Cruz's debate experience, was a win for Dewhurst. A second debate is scheduled for Tuesday.
Public Policy Polling found Dewhurst leading ahead of the runoff and more likely to snap up supporters from third-place primary finisher and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert.
Republican strategist Corbin Casteel was skeptical that Cruz would be able to peel off enough Dewhurst and Leppert voters to win.
"It's a firm Republican state and there is a strong tea party contingency here, but I don't think this is going to be a race that's a litmus test for the tea party," he said. "It's going to be who do the voters trust most. There is a sense of comfort in David Dewhurst — he is the lieutenant governor, knows how to run our state and looks like a senator."
Dewhurst has served as lieutenant governor, arguably the most powerful position in Texas politics, for nine years. He is a veteran of the Air Force, State Department and the CIA — government service Cruz can't claim that plays better here than Ivy league degrees. Plus, he has the backing of Gov. Rick Perry, Austin lobbyists and the state's moneyed elite.
"He has a lot of money but he doesn't come across as someone who's out of touch," said University of North Texas associate political science professor Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha. "He can tell that Texas story, and I think that resonates with a lot of people."
During a recent appearance in his hometown of Houston, Dewhurst reminded the local Realtors' association about the "Texas Miracle" of job growth he says he and Perry helped orchestrate.