Tuesday’s Republican runoff for U.S. Senate in Texas is the most expensive congressional race this election, thanks largely to super PACs supporting the underdog tea party candidate over the far-better funded favorite.
Thus far the race has attracted a total of $13 million in spending by super PACs and other independent groups, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has raised nearly $30 million for the race against former state solicitor general and tea party favorite Ted Cruz — more than $21.5 million of it from his own personal fortune. That’s about three times as much as Cruz. Dewhurst’s campaign has also outspent Cruz’s by a ratio of about 3-to-1, according to FEC records.
Meanwhile, super PACs backing Cruz have spent $7 million according to reports filed with the FEC through Thursday, nearly as much as the $7.6 million spent by Cruz’s own campaign. Dewhurst, however, has benefited from $6 million in support from two Texas super PACs, one of which is backed by heavyweight Texas donor Bob Perry and billionaire Harold Simmons.
That’s far less than his campaign has spent, however; the Dewhurst campaign reported approximately $24.5 million in total disbursements in its most recent FEC filing in mid-July.
Super PACs were created following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. They can accept contributions from unions, corporations and individuals and spend the money on ads attacking or supporting candidates but are prohibited from coordinating with a candidate’s campaign.
The two men are vying to fill the seat currently held by senior Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who decided not to run for re-election.
Dewhurst outpolled tea party favorite Cruz in the May primary 45 percent to 34 percent, short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Dewhurst and Cruz will face off once again Tuesday in this season’s most expensive congressional race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The top spender on behalf of Cruz is the Club for Growth Action Fund at just over $5 million. Also supporting him is FreedomWorks for America. The group has spent more than $450,000 on behalf of Cruz’s campaign this year, according to FEC records.
FreedomWorks spokesman Ryan Hecker said without the momentum of “grassroots activism” from the past few years, Cruz would not be where he is.
“Dewhurst has an unlimited war chest, and if this was four years ago, I don’t think he would have had an opponent,” Hecker said. “But things have changed dramatically over the past few years.”
The lieutenant governor earned his fortune as an energy company executive. Dewhurst has pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, deregulate existing environmental regulations that hinder Texas business and cut spending.
The victor will face the winner of the Democratic primary runoff, also on Tuesday. Former state Rep. Paul Sadler and retired teacher Grady Yarbrough are the top candidates in that race.
The surge of outside money supporting Cruz reflects the national trend that helped tea party-backed Richard Mourdock of Indiana defeat six-term Republican incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar in that state’s May primary.
In Utah, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch spent heavily and moved to the right on the political spectrum to defeat tea party candidate Dan Liljenquist in the state’s May 8 primary election. Hatch won easily earning two-thirds of the vote in that race.
Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks for America advocate for limited government, deficit reduction, tax cuts and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Both Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks have run ads that paint Dewhurst as an “establishment politician” and “long-time insider” in contrast to Cruz, a “true conservative” and strict constitutionalist.
Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said the anti-tax group has tried to make people aware that Dewhurst “is an establishment moderate who supported tax increases in the past.”
The Dewhurst campaign did not return a call requesting comment. However, he has described himself in the past as “the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of the state of Texas.”
But the attacks aren’t one-sided. Pro-Dewhurst groups like the Texas Conservatives Fund and Conservative Renewal have bankrolled a series of Cruz attacks that have grown increasingly ugly.
A recent ad from the Texas Conservatives Fund misleadingly links Cruz, a private appellate lawyer, to Pennsylvania developer Robert Mericle, who was at the center of the 2009 “kids for cash” scandal. The developer pleaded guilty to bribing two federal judges to send juveniles to his private detention facilities.
Neither Texas Conservatives Fund nor Conservative Renewal returned calls seeking comment.
The super PAC Texas Conservatives Fund has scored six- and seven- figure donations from the state’s GOP establishment, including Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who has contributed $1 million, and homebuilder Bob Perry, who has contributed $300,000.
It is harder to tell who is backing Cruz. FreedomWorks for America, one of Cruz’s biggest supporters, has received approximately 40 percent of its money from its connected nonprofit, FreedomWorks, according to CRP. Because of FreedomWorks’ nonprofit status, it is not required to disclose where it gets its money.
Club for Growth Action also receives money from a connected nonprofit, though the amount and percentage are much smaller.
A July 12 study from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in North Carolina, showed Cruz enjoying a 49 percent to 44 percent lead over Dewhurst, and a notably more energetic band of supporters.
The poll found that among voters who described themselves as “very excited” about voting in the runoff, Cruz’s advantage expands to a 59 percent to 36 percent margin.
Dewhurst’s supporters are less enthusiastic; the poll shows those who identify themselves as “someone excited” favor the lieutenant governor 51 percent to 43 percent. Dewhurst enjoys a 50 percent to 36 percent advantage with voters who described themselves as “not that excited.”
The findings suggest voter turnout, typically low in runoff elections, might determine the victor on Tuesday.
Although Dewhurst was a favorite early on, the ad campaigns of recent weeks have made the race much more competitive, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
Early voting began July 23 and will continue through today. Turnout for this election is expected to be greater than it was for the primary — a surprising turn of events, given the heat of the Texas summer. That’s good news for Dewhurst, Jillson said.
“The phrase people are using is, ‘Will the higher turnout dilute the tea?’” he said.
Center for Public Integrity reporter Michael Beckel contributed to this report.