Tea party favorite Ted Cruz, shown Tuesday with wife Heidi and daughters… (Nick de la Torre, Houston…)
WASHINGTON — As the battle rages between the Republican establishment and the tea party, two Texas GOP candidates for the Senate are headed toward a costly runoff as their party works to take majority control of the chamber this fall.
Ted Cruz, an underdog backed by the tea party and Sarah Palin, forced Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into the July 31 runoff when neither emerged with 50% of the vote in this week's election.
Because the Lone Star State remains reliably Republican, the winner of the showdown is likely to take the general election and become the state's next senator.
Still, the prolonged contest will pose another test for the GOP. Bitter primaries in Indiana and Nebraska have divided the party, and more contentious intraparty contests are on the horizon for Wisconsin, Utah and beyond.
"The runoff will be a battle between establishment Republican vs. the tea party conservative," the Tea Party Express, which is backing Cruz, said Wednesday in a letter to supporters.
The primary contests also changed the landscape in House races as Democrats look to Texas to make gains in their pursuit of the 25 seats needed to win majority control.
Voters rejected eight-term Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes — despite appeals from President Obama and former President Clinton — in favor of challenger Beto O'Rourke, a former El Paso City Council member, who was seen as the more progressive candidate. The district is expected to remain in Democratic control, but the upset showed an anti-incumbent sentiment among voters.
House Democrats saw their top opportunity to upset a GOP incumbent this fall slip slightly in West Texas. There, former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez forced the party's preferred candidate, state Rep. Pete Gallego, into a July runoff after neither secured the majority.
Democrats maintain that either Gallego or Rodriguez will pose a strong challenge to freshman Republican Rep. Francisco Canseco in the 23rd District. But the Rothenberg Political Report called this the "most worrisome outcome for Democrats," and shifted the race ranking from a pure tossup to a "tossup/tilt Republican."
The Senate race remains the state's marquee contest as Republicans work to retain the seat held by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is retiring after four terms.
About $35 million was poured into the Senate race, including more than $6 million from Dewhurst's personal fortune.
Among nine candidates vying for the open seat, Dewhurst took 48% and Cruz 30%. Cruz, a Cuban American and the state's former solicitor general, emerged as an early tea party favorite.
In what has become one of the worst criticisms that can be flung at a Republican this cycle, Dewhurst was accused of being a "moderate" in an attack ad by the conservative Club for Growth, which funneled $2.5 million into the race. The group also was heavily involved in the Indiana defeat of veteran Republican Sen.Richard G. Lugarby a tea party challenger.
"I am confident that we will prevail over the Washington insiders funding my opponent," Dewhurst said Wednesday.
Republicans are quick to portray this year's contested GOP primaries as having little in common with those from the 2010 cycle, which some strategists blame for the party's inability to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
Two years ago, the tea party helped to send Christine O'Donnellin Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada to general election contests, where they were perceived by voters as too extreme, and lost.
Both Texas candidates have backgrounds in the federal government — Cruz in the George W. Bushadministration and Dewhurst in the CIA.
Now, Republicans need four seats to gain control of the Senate — or three if a Republican is elected vice president, becoming the tie-breaker.