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Cruz-Dewhurst Race Tests Tea Party

National tea party organizers say tomorrow’s U.S. Senate race between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst is an important test. It will tell them whether the efforts of tea party activists can defeat established Republican candidates in a big, red state like Texas.

Friday an Arlington hotel suite hummed as some one hundred tea party volunteers took turns calling Texas Republicans, urging them to vote for Ted Cruz.

Some of the volunteers came from out of state. Others like Whitney Neal of Flower Mound were among the Texans picking up and handing out Cruz t-shirts, bumper stickers and yard signs.

“I’ve had close to 400 signs at my home and people would contact me and say I need a sign or I need door hangers. Then today I put out another 200 or so,” Neal said. She has been a Cruz volunteer for several months.

“You never know how many see a sign,” she added.

Russ Walker, executive director of FreedomWorks America, says a lot of campaigns these days aren’t buying the yard signs and door hangers that were standard fare a decade ago.

But the national tea party support group’s political action committee has provided them for Cruz as part of $700,000 in campaign resources. It’s also training volunteers to connect with what Walker calls persuadable voters. He says the key is personal contact.

“The neighbor you know and you trust when they talk to you about a candidate, that is going to impact you far more than if you watch 100 ads on TV,” said Walker.

“They are the best deliverers of that message. And that’s shoe leather politics 101.”

Cruz is also airing TV ads, but he’s counting on the legions of tea party supporters to counter Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst’s deep, party connections and personal wealth which is paying for a final, multi-million dollar TV campaign.

In one of the latest ads Governor Rick Perry commends Dewhurst’s legislative record saying, “David Dewhurst repeatedly cut spending. David cut taxes 51 times.”

Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is heard in a radio ad emphasizing Dewhurst’s business experience. “In this runoff only David Dewhurst has started a business from scratch,” Leppert says.

The Farm Bureau is contacting its network of rural voters for Dewhurst who has appeared with veteran’s groups around the state reminding he served in the Air Force and the CIA.

Dewhurst’s text-book campaign adheres to a long-held understanding that Texas is too big for a statewide, door-to-door campaign.

But FreedomWorks says personal communication is part of the strategy which they combined with big Texas rallies this past week. The one at American Airlines arena drew national tea party heroes including Glenn Beck and gave Cruz a chance to enlist an audience of 15,000 activists.

The crowd loudly shouted “yes we can,” when Cruz questioned, “Can we appeal ObamaCare?” and “Can we retire Barak Obama?”

FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe calls the Cruz-Dewhurst contest a defining race for the tea party.

“It’s going to tell us whether or not the tea party still has the political impact it did in 2010,” said Kibbe.

And it may tell whether yard signs, door hangers and neighborliness can compete with traditional party support and money.

Tomorrow night beginning at 7:00 p.m. KERA 90.1 will provide live coverage of voting results for this and other runoff races.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.