The PJ Tatler

Tatler Exclusive: An Inside Look at Craig James' Run for the Texas Senate

Former SMU running back and ESPN commentator Craig James left his longtime job at the sports network late last year to make a run for the US Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. James is running for the Republican nomination, which in Texas will decide who will be the state’s next senator. The GOP field  is very crowded, and includes Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, and Mr. James. The primary is set for May 29.

Today, the Tatler obtained an internal memo that is a product of the James campaign. The undated memo is addressed to campaign manager Corbett Howard, from consultant Arthur Finkelstein, and reflects the campaign’s opinion on the state of the race. Finkelstein is a veteran’s veteran of campaigns going back to Goldwater ’64.

“At the beginning of this race, it was assumed that David Dewhurst had roughly 50% of the vote committed, an unlimited bank account, and significant organizational and political strength” the Finkelstein memo says. “When we entered the race, Ted Cruz and Tom Leppert were minor figures trying to establish their legitimacy. We entered with celebrity, but with low single digits in public and private polls.

“Today, David Dewhurst has slipped into the upper 30’s; his political inevitability is eroding. He is positioned as the moderate rich guy and inexplicably his campaign has kept him from debates, the press and the public so that now his number one characteristic has become arrogance and aloofness. Tom Leppert is dissipating and, again, for reasons I don’t totally understand, has gained little or no traction since the beginning of this year.”

Leppert’s appeal has remained confined to the Dallas area, as most observers expected. Grassroots Republicans outside the metroplex tend to regard Leppert as, at best, an unreliable conservative, and he has not succeeded in changing that image.

The memo continues: “Only Ted Cruz and Craig James are moving. Cruz has worked for well over a year and has some dividends from his hard work and early start. He is by most measures around 20% of the vote, plus or minus 3%. Craig James has now, in many polls, moved into third place and is within 10% of Ted Cruz. Our campaign is hitting its stride now. Every day a former Dewhurst or Ted Cruz supporter moves to Craig James, and this phenomena is continuing to accelerate.”

Recent polls tend to back most of that paragraph’s assertions: As Dewhurst’s support has eroded, Cruz’s has risen. He has, as the memo notes, worked hard to win over voters in public townhalls and meeting all over the state, while Dewhurst has tended to avoid such meetings. The last sentence may be true or not; it’s difficult to quantify given the paucity of polling thus far.

The memo notes that the May 29 primary probably won’t be the end of the primary: “Dewhurst will probably finish in first during the primary vote on May 29th, but with less than 40% of the vote,” the memo states. “That means that roughly 25% is all Craig James needs to have on Election Day in order to have a second place finish. We are well poised for that event. Craig’s support for Rick Santorum, his bold conservatism, his personality, presence, celebrity and hard work have created a foundation for which a political surge can occur. Understand that whoever comes in second will be the favorite to defeat Dewhurst in the run-off and become the next United States Senator from Texas.”

The memo was obviously written before Santorum’s exit from the presidential race, but he was leading in Texas up to that point. There was even a move afoot to make the Texas primary winner-take-all so that should Santorum have won, he would have walked away with all of the state’s 155 delegates. Regarding the advantage of finishing second, that opinion is shared by other campaigns because the nature of the electorate changes for the run-off. More intensely committed voters tend to come back for the second vote, favoring a grassroots candidate over whoever might be regarded as the more “establishment” candidate.

The memo concludes that James’ “message of Faith, Family and the Constitution has hit an emotional nerve with the voters. As has his passion and patriotism for the values that made America great.” A candidate cannot go wrong running on that message in Texas. The question is, did Craig James enter too late and with too much “Texas Tech baggage” to overcome Ted Cruz’s head start and vigorous campaign to move into second place? It seems unlikely, but not beyond possibility.