HOUSTON -- Tuesday’s Texas primary will test the staying power of longtime Republican Sen. John Cornyn against a tea party challenge and the prospects for a fourth-generation politician and first-time candidate, George P. Bush.
The Texas races kick off the 2014 campaign season with themes that will play out across the country this year. Cornyn is one of a host of incumbent GOP senators facing tea party opponents -- though his is not among the seats believed most threatened -- and Bush is one of several candidates trying to parlay family ties into elective office.
“Neither is going to lose or be forced into a runoff. The question is: what is their support?” said Mark P. Jones, chair of the political science department at Houston’s Rice University.
Cornyn, the Senate's second-ranking Republican leader, faces Rep. Steve Stockman, who represents an area to the south and east of Houston. Stockman waged a bizarre campaign, granting few interviews and relying on gags such as handing out Obama barf bags. But he could still peel off tea party voters, Jones said.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a national tea party kingmaker, declined to endorse either candidate. Six other Republicans are also running.
In a recent poll by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune, support for Cornyn was at 62% among likely Republican primary voters, and Stockman had 16%. The rest of the candidates were in the single digits.
Jones said one test of Cornyn's strength will be how he does compared to Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, the state attorney general, who has far more cash and name recognition than his three challengers and is expected to coast to victory before facing off next fall against Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis. Abbott has 90% support among Republican voters, according to the UT Austin/Texas Tribune poll.
“The closer Cornyn is to Abbott, the better we should gauge his performance,” Jones said.
While Cornyn is unlikely to be forced into a runoff, Jones said, the question remains: “Does he limp back to Washington, or go back with his head held high?”
Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said the primary election will demonstrate the current strength of the Republican party’s tea party wing, which powered Cruz’s upset win over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst two years ago.
“The candidates have been leap-frogging over each other to the right in order to attract the voters most likely to show up and that’s the tea party voters,” he said. (Dewhurst, who is campaigning for another term, is among them.)
“Ted Cruz has inspired a lot of imitators. We’re going to see how that plays out,” Henson said.
Winning local tea party endorsements has not proved a challenge for George P. Bush, the son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, nephew and grandson of the former presidents and great-grandson of a U.S. senator. Bush, 37, is making his first bid for public office in the race for Texas land commissioner, a little-known but powerful post that has served as a launching pad for state politics. His primary opponent, East Texas businessman David Watts, raised a small fraction of the more than $2.8 million Bush amassed.
It's been nearly five years since a Bush held elected office, the longest lapse in 32 years. Jones said the primary will be a referendum on the family’s legacy, essentially asking voters, “Do you approve of the next generation of the Bush dynasty?”
Partisans hope that Bush, a Dallas lawyer and Navy veteran fluent in Spanish -- his mother is Mexican -- will not only revive his family's role in Republican politics but also expand his party’s appeal to conservative Latino voters.
Bush has not waged a highly visible campaign, forgoing television ads in favor of select personal appearances and leaving many voters with little more to go on than name recognition, Jones said.
“The risk he runs is that people go into the voting booth, see Bush and their definition of him is left to their imagination,” he said.
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