Google "Ted Cruz" and "grassroots" and you get 865,000 hits. That's because the conventional wisdom posits that Tuesday night's runoff victory for the former Texas solicitor general against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in their battle for the Republican nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat, marked the triumph of grassroots Tea Party activism over an entrenched GOP establishment figure.
To be sure, Dewhurst, aided by the backing of Gov. Rick Perry, outspent Cruz, a newcomer to elective politics, by a ratio of three-to-one. And prior to the May 29 primary, in which Dewhurst easily prevailed but failed to attain a majority of votes cast, virtually nobody gave Cruz even the faintest odds of winning.
But a number of factors at work in the Lone Star State make Cruz's victory more easily understood, and beg the question of whether the new Republican nominee for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison did not himself enjoy the backing of a wholly separate "establishment."
For one thing, the gap between the Senate primary and the Cruz-Dewhurst runoff was nine weeks long. Previously, the longest such gap between a primary and runoff election in Texas had been a mere five weeks. Cruz used the 63 days effectively, drumming up money and free media. Second, victories like his are actually the norm in Texas, where, including Tuesday's results, the second-place finisher in a state primary has gone on to win the ensuing runoff election nine out of fifteen times.
"He was the man versus Dewhurst, who's part of the machine, the establishment there in Texas and in Washington, D.C.," said Sarah Palin on Tuesday night's episode of "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren." "He was the outsider to come in and promise that reform."
Yet Cruz was no ordinary Tea Party figure, and few people's idea of a Beltway outsider. He attended Harvard University's law school and founded a Latino law review there; clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court for Chief Justice William Rehnquist; worked at two federal agencies in Washington, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, under President George W. Bush; and is married to a woman who works for Goldman Sachs.
More important to his electoral fortunes, Cruz received critical endorsements and millions of dollars' worth of contributions and other forms of support from the likes of Gov. Palin, who campaigned for him; Tea Party hero and fundraising powerhouse Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; the D.C.-based Tea Party group FreedomWorks, which is led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey; the anti-tax, pro-free market group Club for Growth, whose top executive is former Rep. Chris Chocola, R-Pa.; conservative columnist and ABC News commentator George F. Will; and National Review, the venerated magazine founded by the late William F. Buckley, Jr.
Ted Cruz, in short, was an establishment candidate in his own right.
"It is time to think differently about the Tea Party," said Darrell West, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. "In the early days, the Tea Party was basically a grassroots movement, didn't have a lot of prominent people behind them, didn't have a lot of money. But now they have big money. They can bring outside resources into a state election, and prove to be very decisive. So they are getting institutionalized as a movement: They have major political figures who are behind them; they have money that is behind them. So they have emerged as a different type of 'establishment' organization."
Other races this year in which Tea Party-backed candidates have defeated better-known politicians include the victory of state Sen. Deb Fisher in a three-way primary in Nebraska, and the primary defeat of six-term GOP incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar at the hands of state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in Indiana.
Turnout among GOP voters in Texas dropped slightly from the 2008 primary contest in which incumbent Sen. John Cornyn prevailed over fellow Republican Larry Kilgore. In that race, more than 1.2 million votes were cast, as contrasted with Tuesday night’s results, in which just over 1.1 million votes were tallied.
Still, the popular narrative of the Cruz-Dewhurst race was reinforced by the candidates themselves. "Tonight is a victory for the grassroots," Cruz told an ecstatic audience at his victory rally Tuesday night. "It is a testament to Republican women, to Tea Party leaders, and to grassroots conservatives. This is how elections are supposed to be decided -- by we the people."
"Thanks for standing up for Texas," Dewhurst told his supporters in his concession speech. "We got beat up a little bit, but we never gave up, and we can stand tall knowing we never compromised any of our values."