AUSTIN -- New poll results released Monday suggest Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Texas) could be headed to a runoff in his bid for reelection. If the incumbent fails to get more than half the vote in the March 4 Republican primary, he'll go head to head against the second highest vote winner in a runoff.
A survey conducted between Feb. 7 and 17 by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune supports weeks of speculation that Dewhurst will likely face state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) in a hotly contested May 27 runoff election. According to the poll, 37 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they'd cast their ballots for Dewhurst, followed by 31 percent for Patrick.
Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson trail with 17 percent and 15 percent of the vote, respectively. The two results are within the sample's +/-5.84 percent margin of error, placing Staples and Patterson in a statistical tie.
"This race is again becoming a little bit of a slave to conventional wisdom, though conventional wisdom has evolved as it often does," said pollster and Professor James R. Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
Although Dewhurst was considered by many to have been politically weakened after his unexpected defeat by tea party firebrand Ted Cruz in the race for U.S. Senate -- and weakened further by criticism of his handling of state Sen. Wendy Davis' filibuster against controversial abortion legislation -- Henson says the incumbent may be better positioned in 2014 than he was in 2012.
"Dewhurst has moved much more convincingly to the right and made much better use of his record in this race than he did in the Senate race," said Henson. "Second, the underlying polling suggests that Dewhurst is still doing okay with tea party members, and, critically, he's doing pretty well with anti-abortion, pro-life voters in the Republican base."
Although Patrick's campaign is similar to Cruz's in its appeal to tea party purity, Patrick will not benefit from the prolonged election schedule in 2012 that came as a result of ongoing litigation over Texas' voting maps. Patrick additionally lacks the major out of state super PAC support that augmented Cruz's campaign advertising.
All four candidates in the Republican primary have blitzed the airwaves down the final stretch. Hoping to edge past Patrick and into the runoff, Staples' latest television ad targets the presumed runner-up, attacking Patrick for his blustery rhetoric on immigration despite having hired undocumented immigrants decades ago at one of his Houston businesses.
The latest finance reports show Dewhurst outspent all his opponents combined down the stretch. Dewhurst's campaign spent roughly $3.44 million between Jan. 24 and Feb. 22. During the same period, Patrick spent $1.22 million, Staples spent $873,000 and Patterson spent $349,000. Perhaps more importantly, the incumbent finished the reporting period with by far the most cash on hand. Dewhurst ended with $581,000, followed by Patterson with $347,000, Staples with $331,000 and Patrick with $168,000.
"Should the scenario turn out to be a Patrick-Dewhurst runoff, Dewhurst has been sitting on an enormous amount of money that they will spend immediately," said Henson.
The winner of the Republican nomination will face state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) in November. While the GOP primary for lieutenant governor has been largely defined by appeals to the party's most conservative members, the UT/TT poll shows all four candidates defeating the Democratic nominee if the election were held now.
"They all win by comfortable margins at this point, but again you have to put an asterisk on that," said Henson. "When we ask people those general election matchups -- particularly in the lieutenant governor's race -- most people are not thinking about that at all. So they're defaulting to party labels if they default to any choice at all."