Although the incumbent advanced to a runoff, he finished a distant second to state Sen. Dan Patrick Tuesday in one of the most contentious races of the nation's first primary of the year. Dewhurst blamed the setback on the rain, which depressed turnout.
The question ahead of the May 27 runoff is whether Dewhurst can rally his humiliated campaign and win over the few deeply conservative voters who will cast ballots. That could prove difficult against Patrick, a radio host whose speeches effortlessly mix tea party rhetoric with evangelical Christian preaching.
"I'm never surprised by the power of God," Patrick said of unexpectedly finishing first Tuesday night. "In Texas, we will show the rest of the country what it means to be a conservative."
The Republican primary race for Texas lieutenant governor is the highest-profile of four statewide GOP runoffs that will pit two kinds of conservative against each other. Some of the candidates have made their names on major wedge issues such as abortion, while others are touting—or defending—a record of governing and hammering out budget deals.
Based on the primary results, voters seemed to prioritize grassroots support over power, experience and money.
Dewhurst is fighting for his political legacy after presiding over the Texas Senate for 11 years. In that role, he has chosen committee leaders, controlled the legislative agenda and maintained the Texas Senate's clubby atmosphere that keeps the wheels of government turning.
But after his loss to Ted Cruz in the 2012 GOP primary race for the U.S. Senate, Dewhurst has tacked hard to the right. He has talked more about banning almost all abortions and even appointed Patrick to chair one of the Senate's most power committees, public education.
Patrick, meanwhile, focused on passing abortion restrictions and expanding the number of charter schools in Texas, while unsuccessfully pushing for tougher laws regarding illegal immigration.
Patrick scored big with 41 percent of the vote to the incumbent's 28 percent in a four-way race. Two other conservative candidates, both former lawmakers who serve as elected commissioners for major state agencies, shared 29 percent of the vote.
Representing Houston in the Senate, Patrick has long criticized Dewhurst for maintaining traditions intended to encourage consensus. Patrick called on Dewhurst to stop appointing Democrats to chair committees and wanted to change the minimum number of votes needed to vote on a bill from two-thirds to only 60 percent, a level that would allow Republicans to pass legislation without Democratic support.
Dewhurst has taken a conservative approach to changing legislative traditions, befitting the soft-spoken former CIA operative and entrepreneur that he is. But his clashes on the Senate floor have long revealed his distaste for Patrick, a brash right-wing radio host and former sports bar operator who always has a sound bite.
In many ways the two men personify the battle in the Texas Republican Party today, the conservative chamber of commerce type versus the rabble-rousing hard-liner.
While the Dewhurst campaign tried to win over the party's grassroots, the results suggest he failed. A glance at Patrick's campaign bank account shows that he made little headway with the party's financiers.
Dewhurst first won his seat by spending an unprecedented $20 million of his own money. Patrick's campaign is $1.5 million in debt, according to a 10-day-old finance report. Dewhurst has no plans to give up, even though he got fewer votes than his Republican opponent the last three times he appeared on a ballot.
"When May 27 rolls around, we're going to have some real Texas weather again, so let's trade back in those umbrellas ... for sunscreen because we're starting all over again," Dewhurst said.
Associated Press reporters Jim Vertuno in Austin and Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.
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