Even in blood red Texas, there are conservatives and then there are tea partiers.
The divide takes center stage Tuesday as political newcomer Ted Cruz aims to cap his insurgent effort with a win over Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Lone Star State's Republican run-off election to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
During the state's May 29 primary, the little-known Cruz was able to capture the anti-establishment fire provided by Texas tea partiers to come within about 10 points of Dewhurst and kept him below the 50 percent threshold, forcing the run-off election.
Since then, even though Cruz has been outspent by the deep-pocketed Dewhurst, he's been able to capitalize on his grassroots support and high-profile endorsements from the likes of Sarah Palin, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and close the election gap. And outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth and other Super PACs have spent heavily in favor of Cruz, helping close the spending gap in the race that has cost nearly $40 million.
The two men are now polling neck-and-neck, with experts pointing to voter turnout as the key to victory.
"It's very close and the big imponderable here is turnout," says Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas. "Apparently there's lots of energy on both sides and lots of money to fuel the get-out-the-vote efforts, but that's what has to happen. It's hot and vacation time and we'll see whether this tea party energy can overcome the establishment because most of the Texas legislature has endorsed Dewhurst and they all have influence and supporters."
Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, says he expects about one million voters to cast ballots – a record-breaking number for a mid-summer run-off.
"In 2006, we only had 500,000 people vote in our regular primary, he says. "So to approach one million in a run-off is phenomenal turnout."
Buchanan says the Texas showdown is a bellweather for the sustainability of the tea party movement that helped fuel the Republican wave in 2010.
"Who gets to decide the brand of the Republican Party?" he says. "It's a little bit of a fight for the soul of the Republican Party … can they bring the young star Cruz to the Senate and continue to build on that or will an establishment Republican Dewhurst wind up in place?"
Buchanan says it's make-or-break time for the nascent anti-government political force.
"There's a 'mad-as-hell-and-we're-not-going-to-take-it-anymore' quality to the tea party that translates into some utter unwillingness to compromise in the Congress that has fueled a lot of this gridlock," he says. "If they want to sustain their movement they have to do that continuously and then eventually they are going to need something more of an agenda, less noise and more progress."
Acknowledging the campaign's fierceness, Munisteri says he's not concerned about the toll it's having on the Republican brand.
"This is a knockdown, drag out, twelve round heavyweight title fight," he says. "You've got two well-organized, highly funded campaigns and it's two big guns going after each other. Overall, I think competition is healthy."
Munisteri adds Dewhurst's struggle to dominate his rival despite strong support from Gov. Rick Perry is a reflection of voters' picking between the two candidates' personalities and not an indictment of the governor's popularity.
"Gov. Perry is still very popular in the state, I think people are just not voting on endorsements," he says.
Both candidates bring their own qualities, he says. Cruz, Texas' first Hispanic solicitor general is Ivy League educated, a talented debater and a "very dynamic speaker," who draws comparisons to tea party favorite Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Munisteri says.
"Lt. Gov. Dewhurst is a very thoughtful, intelligent man that is more cerebral in when he discusses things in more measured tones," he says. "There's a big stylistic difference between the two candidates and they both have their positives but they both have distinct personalities."