Washington • Sen. Mike Lee is likely to gain a new ideological brother in his fight to turn the Senate into a far more conservative institution.
Tea party darling Ted Cruz won the Texas Republican primary Tuesday night, defeating Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a wealthy and well-known candidate who has long been considered the heavy favorite to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
Texas, like Utah, is a strong Republican state and political handicappers say it’s highly likely that Cruz, the state’s former solicitor general, will win in November. Lee is counting on it, saying he would “enjoy having someone else around who sees a world in a way that is very similar to the way I see it.”
The two first met just weeks after Lee won his 2010 election. Cruz was laying the groundwork for his Senate race and Lee was in Washington for congressional orientation meetings. They took a long walk around the Capitol and by the end of it Lee felt compelled to support Cruz’s impending candidacy.
“He and I seemed to think alike on basically every legal, political and constitutional issue I could think of,” said Lee, who has aggressively fought for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and for greatly reducing the size of government, though so far with little results.
The similarities between Lee and Cruz don’t end with their general political philosophy.
Both are 41-year-old lawyers who once clerked for conservative Supreme Court justices, and they rode broad tea party support to shock the political establishments in their state.
Lee bested Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, a three-term incumbent, before beating Tim Bridgewater in Utah’s primary and in the process he became one of the biggest names in the tea party. Lee created the Tea Party Caucus with Sens. Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, and Rand Paul, of Kentucky, and the trio has sought out Senate challengers who would expand their group. To this end, Lee endorsed Cruz in March 2011, giving the Texan his first major endorsement, which was also the first one handed out by Utah’s newest senator.
Lee’s backing didn’t vault Cruz up the polls, but it did signal the beginning of a tea party surge behind the candidate, who in recent months received major help from groups like FreedomWorks and conservative celebrities like Sarah Palin.
For months, Cruz was seen as an also-ran against Dewhurst, who had the backing of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and had spent millions of dollars of his own money on a major TV ad campaign.
But with tea party support, Cruz came out of a nine-person field to force Dewhurst into a runoff and in the past few weeks their man surged into the lead.
“Tonight is a victory for the grassroots,” Cruz said in his victory speech Tuesday. “It is a testament to Republican women, to tea party leaders and to grassroots conservatives.”
Not all of Lee’s endorsed candidates have had the same level of success. He backed Nebraska state Treasurer Don Stenberg, who came in third. In Utah, Lee threw his support behind former state Rep. Carl Wimmer, who lost at the state GOP convention to Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who now faces Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, in November.
Lee stayed out of Utah’s Senate race, though the tea party largely coalesced behind former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who failed in his attempt to unseat Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
While the tea party took a loss in Utah, it won big in Indiana where Richard Mourdock defeated six-term Sen. Richard Lugar.
Many within the conservative movement consider Cruz’s victory to be the biggest of the year and a sign of the tea party’s staying power.
“This is a statement about how powerful the tea party can be in 2012 and going forward,” said Ryan Hecker, of FreedomWorks for America. “Even in a state like Texas, money and media can’t beat grassroots.”
Who is Ted Cruz?
Ted Cruz, the 41-year-old former Texas solicitor general, beat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst by 13 percentage points on Tuesday.
Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father, who fled to Texas when he turned 18 with a $100 bill sewn into his underwear.
Cruz graduated from Harvard law school and clerked for the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He has argued nine cases before the Supreme Court.